x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

India-New Zealand Test series will answer a lot of questions

Despite the overhauls on the batting front and the lack of firepower in the bowling, the hosts should still prove much too strong for the Black Caps ahead of the first Test in Hyderabad.

Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar (L) gestures with team members during a training session at the Rajiv Gandhi International cricket stadium in Hyderabad on August 21, 2012. New Zealand will play two Test matches and two Twenty20 matches against India. AFP PHOTO / Noah SEELAM
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Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar (L) gestures with team members during a training session at the Rajiv Gandhi International cricket stadium in Hyderabad on August 21, 2012. New Zealand will play two Test matches and two Twenty20 matches against India. AFP PHOTO / Noah SEELAM *** Local Caption *** 283674-01-08.jpg

Half a world away, two sides have just finished a joust for Test cricket's No 1 ranking. South Africa's 2-0 victory, and the smile on Gary Kirsten's face would have brought back memories for Indian fans of another series played just 20 months ago.

Having been thrashed at Centurion, India turned the tables in Durban before giving South Africa an almighty scare at Newlands. But for doughty rearguard action from Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher, the series would have been theirs.

As it was, few quibbled about the Indians leaving the southern cape with the No 1 ranking in safe custody.

That was then. Now, on the eve of a home series against New Zealand and the first of what will be ten straight home Tests – four apiece against England and Australia later in the season – India are ranked fifth.

Most fans are still traumatised by what happened in the wake of Kirsten's return to his native land. Tours of England and Australia have never been easy for Indian sides, but few expected successive 4-0 whitewashes.

When the team takes to the field on Thursday, Sachin Tendulkar will still be in the fray, ready to embark on his 24th season in international cricket. In every other respect though, it will mark the beginning of a new era. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman have both retired, and a top six that most supporters could name in their sleep for almost a decade is now unrecognisable.

Virat Kohli established himself at the vanguard of a new generation on that poor tour of Australia. The question now is who will join him. Cheteshwar Pujara should take the slot that Dravid has vacated, leaving Suresh Raina, Ajinkya Rahane and Subramaniam Badrinath to tussle for Laxman's place.

The fact he is a left-hander – there is been no adequate replacement for Sourav Ganguly since he quit in 2008 – gives Raina the edge, but it is hard to see what progress he has made since that shocking series in England a year ago. Some tout Rahane as the next big thing, but he too had an awful tour of the Caribbean with India A a few months ago.

Badrinath, who turns 32 next week, is no hot young prospect, but he has a decade of solid first-class performances behind him. After a baptism against Dale Steyn's pace – he did manage a half-century in three innings – two years ago, he deserves another chance. That he is supremely fit and an exceptional fielder are bonuses.

New Zealand's batsmen were more than a match for India's bowlers on their previous tour two years ago, until they caved in during the final Test at Nagpur. The attack they face this time, however, is far from intimidating. Indian hopes rest primarily on Zaheer Khan's fitness. Ishant Sharma, a veteran of 45 Tests who has not progressed from "potential" to "world-class", is returning from ankle surgery. Umesh Yadav has the pace, but is still very new to the international arena.

With Harbhajan Singh sidelined, Ravichandran Ashwin is the frontline spinner. Ordinary in Australia, he will hope to reprise the performance of his debut series, when he frequently bamboozled West Indies with accuracy and variations. Pragyan Ojha should also play. Piyush Chawla, the leg-spinner who last played a Test in 2008, has also made the squad without anyone really being sure why.

Despite the overhauls on the batting front and the lack of firepower in the bowling, India should still prove much too strong for New Zealand.

India may have slid down a few steps since the highs of 2010/11, but an unexpected triumph in Hobart aside, New Zealand cricket has been plunging into an abyss.

Lucky to avoid defeat in Zimbabwe, they were then beaten at home by South Africa. In their last outing, they managed to make West Indies look like a champion side.

With Daniel Vettori missing – he took 14 wickets on the last tour, the best on either side – it is hard to see how they will bowl India out twice.

The batting is brittle. They tend to lose wickets in bunches and seem incapable of stringing two good sessions together.

After recent misadventures, both sides will feel that things can only get better. For India, callow batsmen and all, they probably will. It is hard to say the same of New Zealand.

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