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Sidharth Monga in Christchurch
February 24, 2009
It's the afternoon before the first match of the tour and the drop-in pitch is yet to be installed. Unaware that a potentially deciding factor in the match has not made its appearance at the AMI Stadium, India and New Zealand practice at the High Performance Academy, half an hour away from the venue for Wednesday's Twenty20, which is expected to be a rare sell-out.
Daniel Vettori is about to address the pre-match press conference in the team hotel, followed by Mahendra Singh Dhoni at the academy. The big-screen operators are tuning their equipment at the stadium. But they don't know what entry music each player will want. The DJ will need to be prepared with a wide array of music. The players don't know how the pitch will behave, and they will have to be prepared for any eventuality.
Until less than 24 hours before the start of the game India had not visited the venue. They may have got perfect facilities to train at the academy - two beautiful grounds, and faultless nets both outdoors and indoors - but it can never replicate the actual venue and the actual match timings.
When they did go to the AMI Stadium at 8pm, mainly to get used to the wind and the cold, having trained till then only during the mornings or afternoons, India didn't hit the ground running. In the first round of their first fielding drill, it showed they needed more warming up. The ball seemed to sting in temperatures of around 10 degrees celsius. They will need to come properly warmed up for the game on Wednesday.
What they would have also noticed is the stadium's shape cannot be geometrically categorised, so they will need to work out their angles. The flood lights are low, the boundaries are short, the outfield is not even all around and since some stands are under construction, the vacant spaces let the wind in.
"The temperature has been up and down, and the wind is pretty cold," Dhoni said, before visiting the stadium. "A lot depends on the conditions tomorrow. If it is cloudy and there is a bit of rain, it will help the seamers. But if there is too much rain, the ball will become soggy and the batsmen will benefit. It will be interesting, at the end of the day it will depend on how the weather pans out, but overall, it has been cold so far." Not knowing what to expect, India will decide their XI only on the day of the game.
Another unknown factor is the format itself. India may be the world champions at Twenty20, but no team has worked out how exactly to go about the game. "It took 10 to 20 years for someone to master the formula in ODIs," Ross Taylor said yesterday. "There are different strategies, and no right way to play." New Zealand, though, have the most experience of the miniature forms of the game - Cricket Max originated here.
In a way, both teams would think Twenty20s are the best way to start the tour. India have no tour games, and if they lose these matches before familiarising themselves with the conditions, it won't affect them as much as defeat in the ODI series.
It's not often that India start as favourites outside the subcontinent, but New Zealand believe that is the case this time. They'll also believe their best chance of causing an upset is early in the series, and in the shortest format of the game.
The anticipation is slowly building. India have been practising here for the last four days - sometimes for four-and-a-half hours, for what is a three-hour-long match. New Zealand have been good hosts: they have given India superb practice facilities, they have called them the best team in the world, and are believed to have extended the ultimate hospitality - inviting Indian Test specialists to play in their domestic games. But the time for niceties is over now. It's time to - as is the norm before rugby games here - let the horses out onto the AMI Stadium.