Akhila Ranganna: There seems to have been a perceptible change in the balance of power in world cricket. While Australia have embarked on their tour of South Africa as underdogs, a tag they are certainly not used to, India have reached the shores of New Zealand - a venue where they haven't won a Test series for close to 40 years - earmarked as clear favourites. While India's overseas record has improved in recent years, this tour could serve as a clear indicator of whether the Indian team is primed for the No. 1 spot in world cricket. Cricinfo's associate editor Dileep Premachandran analyses.
Dileep Premachadran: It's a massive test because South Africa have taken massive strides in the last 12 to 18 months. Everyone knows that Australia's standards have dipped a little and I don't think that you have had an Indian team that's as close to the No.1 ranking - not just in Tests but in ODI cricket as well. So in that context and given the fact that we have won in New Zealand way back in 1967-68; almost two generations ago, it will be a huge Test.
AR: Experts say this is a tour that India should win. But how big a setback will it be to India's aspirations of becoming No. 1 if India were to come back empty-handed?
DP: It would be a setback. Obviously everyone is eyeing that No. 1 spot now and I think a lot of them want that, especially the senior players. At least to be officially acknowledged as the best team in the world before they retire would mean a lot to some of them.
AR: But all this talk of favourites and No. 1 doesn't seem to be fazing the Indian team. Let's hear what India's captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni had to say when he spoke to the media on the eve of his team's departure to New Zealand.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni: As a team we have never thought about being No. 1. For us it's all about the next step that has to be taken. We know that if we play consistent cricket for a long period of time the rankings will take care of themselves. Every day when we turn up on the field, whether it's a nets session, a Test match or an ODI, we want to give our 100%. Practice sessions are very important because if you prepare well that's what you will do in the game as well. These small things are more important - the rankings will take care of themselves.
AR: Talking about performances, India had a disastrous tour of New Zealand in 2002-03. But there are some significant changes between that team and the current squad - only six members of the current squad have been involved in previous series in New Zealand.
DP: The core of the team isn't that drastically different from the one that went in 2002-03, but the big difference that strikes me when I run my eyes down the squad list is the strength in depth. That is much greater now than it was then. No disrespect to players like Sanjay Bangar and Tinu Yohannan - they went out there and gave it their all but they simply weren't the same quality as the back-up seamers that we have now or even the back-up batsmen. I think in that respect it is a much stronger side.
The other big difference is the role of Zaheer Khan now as a senior bowler. He is there to mentor the likes of Munaf Patel and Ishant Sharma, so that is a big difference. If Srinath had gone on that [Test] tour of New Zealand instead of retiring - I know he came back for the World Cup in 2003 and the Indian performance perked up drastically - and had been around to mentor the bowlers on that tour, I think India would have done much better.
We also make a big deal of India's strengths and weaknesses but that was a very formidable New Zealand side. Just the year before they had almost beaten Australia in Perth; they had Stephen Fleming, one of the great captains of his generation. Daryl Tuffey was an outstanding bowler in those conditions; they had Shane Bond who was at that time among the best fast bowlers in the world. They had a damn good side back then. They also had a much stronger batting line-up than now.
AR: This tour will also be Dhoni's first big overseas Test series as captain. But if Dhoni's current captaincy form is anything to go by, India have nothing to worry about.
DP: I don't think I have seen an Indian captain better equipped to handle pressure than Dhoni. This is in no way disrespecting captains like Mohammad Azharuddin or Sourav Ganguly or any of the distinguished captains that India have had before. I am very impressed with the way Dhoni deals with pressure. He has that Keith Miller attitude of "pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse"; that you shouldn't really bring such words into sport. He has that sort of calm about him and I think that is this team's biggest strength. It's not the experienced middle order, it's not the new-ball bowling, it's the fact that the captain never looks frazzled in the middle. If things go wrong, he has a quiet word with someone and gets back to business and I imagine that quiet confidence spreads through the side. I think he will deal with this challenge as well as he has dealt with all the others so far.
AR: This team spirit within the current Indian set-up is there for all to see and the captain believes that coach Gary Kirsten has had a major role to play in it.
MSD: He is a great guy. He is not into publicity; he doesn't keep appearing in front of the media. In fact we have to tell him, "Gary, this is the session you need to address." He is not the kind of guy who puts pressure on individuals. He doesn't push the players to change their natural strokeplay or their bowling action. He helps the players to adapt well and that's what international cricket is all about.
He has been motivating the boys well. The dressing-room atmosphere is great. That is one area where the dressing-room staff comes into action. There will be times when we are doing well, there will be times when we are performing badly, but they have to maintain that calm and composed dressing-room atmosphere which is really important and I feel that he is really great in doing that. The whole team has gelled very well and that is what is important.
|"I think it's very important that we go there and assess the conditions. The balance of our team is such that regardless of what we are confronted with we can be really competitive" Gary Kirsten|
AR: A lot is being said about the conditions the team will face in New Zealand - something that India struggled to come to terms with on the 2002-03 tour whether it was the weather or the seaming pitches. But Rahul Dravid, who was part of that tour, believes too much shouldn't be read into the last tour. Speaking to Cricinfo, this is what he said.
Rahul Dravid: I don't think it's particularly difficult. Everyone is basing their assumptions on what happened on the last trip, which I think was an aberration. In fact, it was like a freak tour, by [New Zealand's] own admission. The weather was wrong, they hadn't got some of their pitch preparations right. But if I look at some of the wickets that were there on the 1998 tour then I think I played on some pitches there that were better than some I have played on in England or Australia or South Africa.
AR: But India's coach Gary Kirsten, speaking to the media before the team left for New Zealand, said whatever the conditions the Indian team is equipped to handle them.
Gary Kirsten: I think it's very important that we go there and assess the conditions. I have seen two very different conditions in the last two series that I have watched there. When India was last there, the wickets were seaming around a lot and the last time West Indies were there, the wickets looked good and were very flat. It's a question of finding out what we have been confronted with. I know that it gets a bit colder this time of the year; there could be some rain to assist the seamers in terms of moisture in the air. The balance of our team is such that regardless of what we are confronted with we can be really competitive.
AR: India might be the favourites going into the series, but Kirsten feels that New Zealand, having come off a hard-fought Chappell-Hadlee series in Australia cannot be taken lightly.
GK: New Zealand will always be a competitive team. They are fighters and they do what they can, especially on their home soil, to win. I think it's worth being wary of them, especially at home. They are not easy to beat at home and we need to be well prepared to understand the weather there, which is very different from what we are used to here, so we need to be prepared.
AR: With Ranjit Shinde, this is Akhila Ranganna for Cricinfo.