Testing times for Indian squad ahead of tests
India's test squad go into a leisurely two-day shakedown in Whangarei today boosted by reinforcements, but with their opponents promising another short-pitched barrage in the two-test series.
Opener Murali Vijay, prolific No 3 Cheteshwar Pujara and veteran left-arm quick Zaheer Khan bolster India's likely test 11 which will otherwise be a reshuffled version of their beaten ODI squad.
Today's warmup match against a group of fringe New Zealand first-class players, without test openers Hamish Rutherford and Peter Fulton who opted for Plunket Shield cricket, will have questionable value. India hope to play all 17 of their squad in a glorified open wicket practice.
New Zealand, meanwhile, had a couple of days' rest after their 4-0 ODI series romp and reassemble in Auckland tomorrow for Thursday's first test.
Momentum between series is an over-used and oft-questioned phrase, but the recent matchups and New Zealand dominance must have an effect on the teams' respective confidence levels.
More so when New Zealand felt they brilliantly executed their bowling plans to India's powerful batting lineup, with the promise of bouncy, seaming pitches in Auckland and Wellington.
"It's something that Shane [Bond, bowling coach] is pretty hot on. He's pretty keen to see our guys be hostile and aggressive with ball in hand and it's good we've got the bowlers who can do that in the test team. It's certainly a tactic we'll look to employ," captain Brendon McCullum said.
Trent Boult returns from a torn quadriceps muscle to partner his mate Tim Southee, while Neil Wagner and Doug Bracewell will contest the third seamer's spot. Wagner has the inside running on the strength of playing in New Zealand's 2-0 series win over West Indies.
Eden Park's drop-in pitch never has a green look about it, but plenty of grass will no doubt be left on at the behest of New Zealand management. Pace, bounce and seam will be demanded.
"Obviously with home town advantage you don't want to be playing on bunsens [turning pitches]. That clearly plays into India's hands, but if we can get a wicket similar to what we played West Indies at the Basin that would suit us pretty well. These boys are worried that I'm going to lose another toss and we'll find ourselves batting," McCullum said.
New Zealand's win at the Basin in December set the benchmark, with Boult scything through the tourists' batting and Southee backing him up in a magnificent display of swing bowling. If Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor can continue their batting dominance then the hosts have a great chance, particularly if India get a fright from the look of the pitch.
Said coach Mike Hesson: "It's the ability to push guys back and then bowl that natural length, and present the seam so we can find the outside edge. That's the formula we've had for a while and we showed that at the Basin Reserve, the way we were able to force the West Indies back then nick them out."
India's test team are coming off a 1-0 series defeat in South Africa; the first a thrilling draw which the tourists dominated, and the second a 10-wicket win by South Africa on a turning pitch in Durban.
Pujara is the world's fifth-ranked test batsman but gets only a brief taste of New Zealand conditions before the tests, while Vijay will open with the struggling Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma drops down the order behind kingpin Virat Kohli.
Zaheer, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami will likely form the pace trio and one of spinners Ravindra Jadeja or Ravi Ashwin will miss out.