Tendulkar-less Indians still a big crowd puller

ALL-TIME GREAT: Sachin Tendulkar holds cricket records unlikely to ever be broken - 200 test matches and 100 international hundreds.
ALL-TIME GREAT: Sachin Tendulkar holds cricket records unlikely to ever be broken - 200 test matches and 100 international hundreds.

His presence in Indian touring teams to New Zealand was one of cricket's heart-warming certainties.

Seven times over 20 years, the great Sachin Tendulkar disembarked at Auckland Airport with the tour squad and relished a rare chance to stroll the quiet streets of Napier or Hamilton without disguise or security guards. He scored a few runs, thrilled the hordes and broke a few bowlers' hearts, too.

So it won't be quite the same when Tendulkar-less India touch down tomorrow for their five-ODI, two-test tour.

The household names might be absent but this India squadare as dominant a force in world cricket as at any stage when Tendulkar donned the pads.

Captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni doesn't quite carry the god-like status but he's getting close, and his influence on Indian cricket is arguably greater.

The tourists open their month-long visit in Napier on Sunday as the top-ranked ODI team, with the World Cup and Champions Trophy in the cabinet. In tests they're ranked second to South Africa, having won six from eight last year as Dhoni became the first player to captain India in 50 tests. Longevity and Indian cricket aren't often used in the same sentence, so the former long-haired lad from the poor background in Ranchi has almost broken the mould.

He'll be seen and heard often this next month. For entire tours Dhoni has been the only team spokesman put forward as team and media relations fluctuate. His Chennai coach, Stephen Fleming, recently marvelled at how the weight of responsibility sits easily with Dhoni, who is seemingly unaffected by media demands and expectation.

India won 22 of their 34 ODIs last year, and Dhoni played in 26 of them, along with all eight tests. Crouching behind the stumps, a task much more physically demanding than it appears, hasn't wearied him. He averaged 63 in ODIs last year, and 46 in tests, capped by his 224 against Australia in Chennai.

New Zealand Cricket will pray for fine weather as they look to milk their prized cash cow. Indian tours aren't beaten for television rights and gate revenue. This was some time in the making, too, after India's all-powerful board wanted to withdraw from the future tours programme requirements of three tests, five ODIs and one T20. After months of negotiations, a test and the T20 match were dropped, enabling India to play the Asia Cup next month.

Historically, India haven't travelled well to New Zealand. They've won just five of 21 tests, and 10 of 29 ODIs. Cold weather and seaming conditions have proved a bridge too far.

New Zealand coach Mike Hesson has already placed his order, publicly requesting green, bouncy surfaces for the two tests, at Eden Park and the Basin Reserve. India prepare conditions to suit, so why shouldn't we, he argued after New Zealand's pacemen helped crush West Indies by an innings in Wellington.

Removing India's spinners from the equation as much as possible makes sense, too. Five years ago India had the red carpet rolled out, or more accurately the brown turf. Harbhajan Singh, another not returning this time, spun the tourists to a 10-wicket victory in Hamilton before draws in Napier and Wellington saw Dhoni's men clinch the test series.

In the ODIs, India batted first in Napier, Christchurch and Hamilton and posted totals way beyond New Zealand's reach, winning the series 3-1.

India don't have the big batting names of past visits, but the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and Dhoni won't need a second chance to threaten 400 if the pitches are docile and the bowling a touch wayward.

Sunday News