A mouth-watering Indian summer
High anticipation abounds as India prepare for their first tour to New Zealand since early 2009. Fascinatingly, they bring just three old faces for the Tests: MS Dhoni as captain, Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma. Therefore, the new-look India will be in full view, especially their lucent and luminous batting line-up.
It's for this reason alone that New Zealand should focus their preparation on exposing a whole line-up that has never before batted in these conditions. First of all, the home side must aim for a series win. While I am not big on unrealistic expectations, I believe that in home conditions all teams must set that goal. These days, to not win at home, whoever you are, is a missed opportunity.
To start with, New Zealand will gain good ground in the rankings if they can achieve this goal. Recently, against West Indies, they showed excellent consistency in their fast bowling stocks, a growing strength. It is this factor, against a resplendent yet unacquainted Indian batting line-up, that should give them a fierce focus.
Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner (or Adam Milne as back-up) are the men to target India's top six. They are confident, fit and work well together. Most importantly they can produce a significant amount of swing to trouble any top player early in his innings.
Importantly, the pitches should be green and hold moisture. This environment has been missing recently. Hadlee and Co, from the glorious past, didn't bowl on featherbeds; they gained assistance off the seam as well as through the air. With respect to an Indian attack that is ageing a little with Zaheer back in, local groundsmen should be watering freely, just as the ones in India remove life from their pitches.
An example of this, which went a little too far, was the India tour here back in 2002-03. Then, results came quickly for the home team, although it happened so fast that a contest never emerged, as India threw in the towel early.
In the last year or so, the pitches have been too batsman-friendly, and so there must be a natural adjustment to provide more for the swing and seam bowlers. If it does, the Indian line-up will be tested as much as they were in South Africa last month, but in different ways. On that score, they coped well against real pace and bounce, despite losing the series to a classy No. 1 ranked team. Their confidence of adjusting to foreign conditions will be high, given their showing overall. In New Zealand, their ability to adjust will need to keep evolving.
India will start the tour with one-day matches, and in those games the pitches will be fabulously lame for bowlers. Runs will flow like a raging river. New Zealand, therefore, must protect Southee, Boult and Wagner from a limited-overs beating and prepare them appropriately for the two Test matches.
Instead, in the ODIs, NZ should focus on playing the four Ms: McClenaghan, Milne, Mills and McCullum. Wagner, in particular, needs to rock up to the Tests firing on all cylinders. His pace and aggression need to be at a high octane. If not, Milne, as the country's fastest bowler, may well be unleashed. Added to that will be the growing all-round abilities of Corey Anderson, as the fourth seamer, or even fifth.
The toughest question will be how Ish Sodhi, the young legspinner, is used. If pitches are green, Sodhi may become redundant; if they aren't, he will be exposed anyway, given India's glory against any spin. It would appear greedy, but adding Milne in as the fourth bowler and second right-armer, instead of Sodhi, wouldn't be that ludicrous, particularly if the pitches are indeed hypersonic and frolicsome. It is a shame that Daniel Vettori has seemingly finished his Test career, as his experience of keeping an end tight would have been ideal in this vital series. Sodhi, though, is a great lad, with a handy blade, and he will learn immensely being in the mix.
Of course, the Indian bowlers shouldn't be discounted by any stretch. Zaheer is one of the finest to ever open the bowling for India and his experience will be invaluable. He will know he can exploit the New Zealand openers, who are showing a distinct lack of proper foot movement at times. Frankly, if there isn't better footwork shown by Peter Fulton and Hamish Rutherford, their places will become open to scrutiny - if they are not under the cosh already. I suspect the status quo will stay for this series, but Fulton at this stage of his career needs to keep posting contributions if he is to bat long into the year. Rutherford is a precocious talent, and he is worth guiding through this second-year phase of his promising Test career.
The mouth waters when you line up Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli against Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor. Both Pujara and Kohli have had remarkable run sprees recently, as has Taylor, while Williamson will be looking to kick on after getting decent starts. He has shown growth and progress in the pivotal No. 3 spot, and this tour will be a good challenge for his mental strength. The only critique I would offer is for him to show the opposition, via his body language, that he will not be denied and that he will rise to any occasion, offensively or defensively. I like everything else about his development and overall ability.
Crucial runs need to come from Brendon McCullum, Anderson and BJ Watling, as is always the case. Time and time again we see sides falling short when the lower order don't contribute. Dhoni and R Ashwin do it admirably for India, and Ajinkya Rahane has already shown his stickability at No. 6 and desire to bat with the tail. Crucial runs (as I indicated in my last article, about the Ashes) are the cornerstone from which bowlers can properly present their case.
The teams' tactics are in good hands with their respective skippers. The fielding unit is another vital cog, and the team that makes an impact first could well be the one that gets the jump. New Zealand have no excuse in this area, it's just a matter of deeper intent.
India are ranked No. 2 and New Zealand No. 8, but don't let that fool anyone. This series, if played on energetic pitches, where results are found in approximately four days, could well be as memorable as any we have seen in this part of the world for a while.
Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand