Old doubts follow India bowlers to NZ
"It is quite far from India," was MS Dhoni's first reaction when asked how he felt on reaching New Zealand. That was at Auckland airport, and Dhoni still had one last flight to take to Napier, where the tour will kick off with the first of five ODIs on Sunday.
He might be around 18 hours of flying time and multiple stopovers away from home, but Dhoni faces the same old issue. How to keep his bowlers from leaking runs. India went for 280 in the second ODI against South Africa in Durban last month, and then collapsed for 146, but Dhoni felt it was an achievement for his bowlers to have gone for as little, or as many, as they did.
In a way, it was an achievement, for bowlers who conceded 358 and 301 either side of Durban. Before that, in six attempts against Australia at home, the lowest they had managed was 295. There is hardly any Dhoni press conference these days where he does not mention how harsh the new fielding restrictions are on him.
"Individuals have to step up when you play with the new rules," Dhoni said before leaving for New Zealand. "You need to be aware of your bowling. You need to be confident that you can bowl with only four fielders out. We have seen that with the new rules, even the top bowlers in the world have had to bowl with fine leg and third man in the circle. You'll have to be comfortable about your own bowling and you really need to know your strengths well. We'll have to wait and watch. To see how they perform under pressure."
Adding to Dhoni's familiar concern is the location. Cricket in New Zealand is usually played on rugby grounds, which means the shape of the outfield is anything but normal. It is not easy for a visiting captain to immediately work out the angles and place his fielders in optimal positions. This time, Dhoni will have the experience of his previous visit in 2009, but how much he is able to draw upon that with one less deep fielder allowed now remains to be seen.
"I remember when I went to New Zealand for the first time, I was confused with some of the fielding positions because of the unusual shape of some of the grounds. So when we used to have a short fine-leg, we had to keep him so wide that from the wicketkeeper's angle he was almost at square leg but still the ball kept going to him. It does take some time to get used to it.
"The grounds here have a very different shape. You are used to playing in grounds that are oval or round. As a bowler, till you don't play here it is very difficult to pinpoint the fielding position. It will be a good experience for some of us who have not played here."
Dhoni is expecting the pitches for the one-dayers to be flatter ahead of the two Tests. India's bowlers, particularly at the death, are often found lacking in batting-friendly conditions. Even on more helpful surfaces in South Africa recently, they were expensive. Although Dhoni felt India's death bowling had improved, he admitted there were lessons to be learnt from their previous tour.
"(In) South Africa, we were on the shorter side. We did not get enough time to prepare or to get used to the bounce. Outside the subcontinent if you are on the shorter side and you don't have that express pace, it means you can go for runs. That is what happened in that series."
That series is gone. India had around ten days off after South Africa before they started their journey to New Zealand. They will have had five days to acclimatise and prepare before the first ODI. They did fielding drills and played football on the first one, after which they've had two full sessions at Nelson Park, across the road from McLean Park, where Sunday's ODI will be played.
To Indians, Nelson Park could pass off as one of the centrally-located grounds in the numerous MIG colonies in the country, only it is thrice as big. It is surrounded by neat, spacious one-storeyed houses. The floodlights of McLean Park tower over one side, while Napier Hill, with more houses and a steep road thrown in, looks down from the other.
It is a beautiful setting to "enjoy" some cricket, as Mohammed Shami was heard saying during a long bowling stint. Bowling coach Joe Dawes seemed to be telling him to hit the pitch hard; India fast bowlers, used to releasing the ball to try and find swing on low home pitches, are often not able to dig it in when they tour. Shami took notice and generated steep bounce, keeping the batsmen on the back foot. While Ishwar Pandey was nowhere near as sharp, he produced several accurate yorkers, something he had also done on the A tour to South Africa. The skills are being tweaked and sharpened; Dhoni will want them to hold together "under pressure" when New Zealand's power-hitters get going.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo