1st Test: NZ take on in-form India today

AHMEDABAD: Fresh from their 2-0 triumph over Australia, a full-strength India go into a three-Test rubber against New Zealand on Thursday with the focus on Sachin Tendulkar who just needs one more century to record an amazing feat of 50 Test tons.

The hosts, the world’s number one ranked team, are on a phenomenal run in Test cricket, especially at home, and have lost only to South Africa (twice) since the beginning of 2008 on home soil.

India go into what is expected to be a lop-sided contest, with their tails up following the clean sweep against former world toppers Australia last month and a hat-trick of Test wins under their belt beginning with the triumph against South Africa at the Eden Gardens in February.

India have, significantly, won five of their last six Test matches at home while the Daniel Vettori-led Kiwis have arrived from a humiliating 4-0 ODI series loss to Bangladesh in the latter’s territory.

It would, therefore, need a superhuman effort from New Zealand to halt the rampaging Indian batting line up, in which Sachin Tendulkar is also in prime form, from batting them out of the contest.

Tendulkar has been in red-hot form from the beginning of this year when India toured Bangladesh. His appetite for runs and centuries has only increased with advancing years.

The 37-year-old champion cricketer has accumulated a staggering 1270 runs from his last nine Tests (15 innings), embellished by six three-figure knocks that includes two double hundreds, for a Bradmanesque average of 97.69, a feat that fetched him this year’s ICC Cricketer of the Year honour.

He also scored his maiden double ton at the Motera ground, in 1999 and against the same opposition. The Indians fans will be hoping that his 50th Test century comes at Sardar Patel stadium.

While Tendulkar is the biggest threat with his ability to adapt to any situation and any format of the game, his protégé Virender Sehwag also stands tall with his capacity to take the rival attack by the scruff and demoralise the bowling.

The return of VVS Laxman, who missed the previous match that India played at Bangalore against Australia because of a back problem, has bolstered the already strong batting which has even made light of the indifferent form of another mainstay Rahul Dravid since the tour to Sri Lanka.

Also returning to the Indian ranks to add meat to the side are opener Gautam Gambhir and lanky pace bowler Ishant Sharma who also missed the match at Bangalore.

The return of Gambhir and Dravid would mean the confinement to the bench of reserve opener Murali Vijay and rookie middle order batsman Cheteshwar Pujara who made significant contributions in the team’s seven-wicket victory against Australia at Bangalore.

Vijay scored his maiden century (139) and also got involved in a crucial 308-run stand with Tendulkar to help India overhaul Australia’s huge first innings score and pave the way for the victory.

Pujara was promoted to one-drop in the order in the second innings and made a quick-fire 72 to help India get past the 200-plus fourth innings target.

However, both are expected to give way to the returning Gambhir and Laxman, who has played two key innings in his last two Tests.

The stylish Hyderabadi made a classy 103 not out to guide India to a series-levelling win against Sri Lanka at Colombo before uncorking his gem – 73 not out when shepherding the lower order including Ishant Sharma – to drag the team across the finishing line against Australia at Mohali with last man for company.

Dravid, who is two short of completing 200 catches in Tests, is not in prime form currently, but the Bangalore stalwart would take heart from his run-spree at this ground.

In the previous Test at this venue, he rescued India from a precarious 38/4 against Sri Lanka last November with his back-to-the-wall 177. He also scored a double hundred and a half century when last playing against New Zealand at the Motera ground seven years ago.

With Dhoni and Suresh Raina also present to prop up the lower middle order, the team’s batting looks formidable, especially at home.

The Indian bowling, spearheaded by Zaheer Khan in pace and spinner Harbhajan Singh, also sports a wholesome look.

The hosts are again expected to prefer a four-man frontline attack with Khan and Sharma manning the new ball and Harbhajan and Pragyan Ojha handling the slow stuff. There are part-timers like Sehwag to fill in the fifth bowler slot.

The visitors, on the contrary, are in disarray with even their opening combination not yet settled.

Vettori, in his 100th Test for his country, and the other tour selectors have to decide whether to play the hard-hitting Brendon McCullum as an opener or at no. 3.

"I think he can set the tone opening or at number three," Vettori said before the match. Much like Sehwag does for India. He really sets the tone for the team and takes a lot of pressure off the rest of the batsmen. I think Brendon can do that role, whether it is opening or at number three", Vettori said.

"Those top three positions have been unsettled for the history of our game. It is a continual problem and something that we are always searching for. We are really hoping Brendon, with his experience as an opener in one-day cricket and his good form in Test cricket last year, can be a real solution," the classy left-arm spinner said.

McCullum, who has left the wicket keeping duties to colleague Gareth Hopkins in the series, has the ability to take away the game like Sehwag does for India, but has not shown the consistency of the Indian blaster.

History is also against the Kiwis who have not won a Test match in India since the great Richard Hadlee and off spinner John Bracewell took 18 wickets in the second Test at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai to pilot them to a 136-run victory in November, 1988.

Since then New Zealand have lost three games on Indian soil and drawn six, including both times they played here previously – in 1999 and 2003.

Only Vettori has survived from the 2003 squad that drew here which puts an enormous task on the Kiwis to adapt themselves to the pitch and weather conditions here even without the benefit of a warm-up game.

Tall right-hander Chris Martin, who has had a poor year so far, would be spearheading the pace attack with the benefit of having played 56 Tests and taken 187 wickets, but the others in the fast bowling battery are very inexperienced.

In spin, New Zealand will be well-served by captain Vettori and Jeetan Patel, the off-spinner, who would find the Indian wickets very conducive to bowl on.

The batting also wears a thin look and has also an unsettled appearance at the top which is the reason the visitors are to play McCullum, with 52 Tests under his belt at an average of just under 35, in either the opening slot or at number 3.

Ross Taylor and the beefy Jesse Ryder have the ability to play attractively, but how good they are when putting their heads down and grafting for runs in Indian conditions would be only known as the series progresses.

New batting find Kane Williamson is the baby of the team at 20 but whether the Northern Districts youngster is capped on Thursday remains to be seen.

The match would be the 11th at this venue since it made its debut as an international ground in 1983 when the then almighty West Indies, led by Clive Lloyd, visited.

Out of the five matches that have produced results, the hosts have won three but against New Zealand both their clashes here were drawn affairs.

The teams:

India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (Capt., wk), Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Suresh Raina, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Pragyan Ojha, Ishant Sharma, M Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Amit Mishra and S Sreesanth.

New Zealand: Daniel Vettori (Capt.), Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum, Jesse Ryder, Martin Guptill, Gareth Hopkins (wk), Kane Williamson, Chris Martin, Tim Southee, Tim McIntosh, Jeetan Patel, Brent Arnel, Bradley John Watling, Hamish Bennett, Andy McCay.(PTI)

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