New Zealand have come to India on the back of one of their worst tours in recent history, when they were decimated by the West Indies across all formats. India themselves are coming of a horrible period in test cricket, and will hope to regain success in the longest form of the game in home confines. India are the clear favourites in the series, nonetheless some important battles will have to be won to clinch the two-test rubber.
Sehwag and Gambhir vs. New Zealand's seam attack
The Indian batsmen are unlikely to have too many sleepless nights worrying about facing the spin of Tarun Nethula and Jeevan Patel. That's why it is going to be crucial for New Zealand to make maximum use of the new ball.
Of course the challenge is steep, when the openers are Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. The failure of the two mates from Delhi has been one of the main reasons for India's slump in test cricket, though conditions at home should suit them better. Throw in to the mix, an inexperienced Black Caps attack, and it could just be the ideal tonic for Sehwag and Gambhir ahead of England's impending tour.
Chris Martin bowled a spell for the ages on the Kiwis last tour to India, and captain Ross Taylor will rely on him to be effective with the new ball again this time out. Tim Southee's bounce might not be best suited to India, while Neil Wagner is still a bit raw. Doug Bracewell has a beautiful outswinger that could trouble Gambhir, while Trent Boult's ability to swing the ball late with both new and old ball should ensure that he is selected.
If New Zealand's seamers do manage to snare a few early wickets, the contest will certainly get exciting, and against a fairly new Indian middle order, anything could happen. If Gambhir and Sehwag survive the first 10 overs though, India could end up posing incredibly large totals.
McCullum and Guptill vs. Zaheer and Ishant
The Black Caps think tank have made a bold yet correct decision to move Brendon McCullum up the order to open the batting with Martin Guptill. The advantages of this move are two-fold. First, it takes the pressure off Guptill who has been their best test batsman this year. Secondly, it's a signal of intent that New Zealand aim to take the game to India.
New Zealand will face a stiff enough challenge against spin, so the last thing they will want is to lose wickets to India's seam attack. Zaheer Khan will provide a stern examination with the new ball, but Ishant Sharma can be negated easily if Guptill and McCullum play him patiently and dispatch the loose balls which Ishant has a habit of delivering ever so often.
If McCullum and Guptill provide solid starts for the Kiwis, it will ease the pressure on the misfiring middle order. However, if Zaheer and Ishant get success with the new ball, India could conceivably rout New Zealand.
New Zealand's middle order vs. India's spinners
The achilles heel for the New Zealand team this past year. Other than Kane Williamson's defiant century against South Africa in Wellington, the middle order has performed poorly for quite sometime. Loose shots and tame dismissals, and rare fifties have not been converted into big hundreds.
It's not going to get easier for them against Pragyan Ojha and Ravichandran Ashwin in home conditions. While Ashwin and Ojha don't share many mystery deliveries and googlies between them, they rely on tight lines and sharp lengths, factors that have been more than sufficient to trouble New Zealand batsmen this year.
Despite being poor players of spin, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor will simply have to come to the party for the Black Caps if they are to have any chance of surviving. Taylor will have to adjust his leg side facing stance if he is going to have a shot against Ashwin. Williamson will need to show better judgement in playing his shots against Ojha's flight, and his best option might be to curb the drive and play off the back foot.
It might also be a smart idea for James Franklin to be used in the middle order, as he has a lot of experience playing in Indian conditions against spinners. If either Daniel Flynn or BJ Watling play well, it would be an added bonus for New Zealand.
India's middle order vs. legacy and history
For the first time since 1996, India's middle order in a test match won't include either Rahul Dravid or VVS Laxman. The only great left in the middle order is Sachin Tendulkar. It truly is the beginning of a new chapter in Indian cricket.
As far as auditions to cement a place in the test team are concerned, New Zealand at home isn't the toughest assignment. That being said, you have to take advantage of the opportunities given to you. Considering the fact that the match is being played at Laxman's home ground in the immediate aftermath of his retirement, the knives will be out quickly if any of the new batsman are to fail.
Virat Kohli has already proved his test match credentials with some brilliant innings in Australia, and is expected to be a main stay of the team for many years to come. That still leaves two spots in the middle order. Cheteshwar Pujara has long been considered a natural successor to Rahul Dravid, and he is likely to get a deserved opportunity to reclaim his place in the national side, after a successful start to international cricket was curtailed by a serious injury.
The last spot will be fought between Suresh Raina and Subramaniam Badrinath. Both batsmen have been given opportunities before but have failed to grasp them. Unfortunately for Badrinath, he has also failed in home conditions, and his away assignments were against the West Indies, hardly the most daunting of examinations. Raina has also failed, most evidently on the disastrous tour to England. However, Raina is not likely to be bounced out on Indian pitches, and the fact that he is younger than Badrinath by six years should ensure that the southpaw from UP gets another chance to stake a claim in the Indian middle order.
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