New Zealand cricket is going through a tough period, in that they don't have a battery of experienced, proven match-winners at their disposal. The Indian leagues have hurt them badly. The biggest tragedy of New Zealand cricket in recent times is fit and still languishing in domestic limited-overs tournaments. Shane Bond is still the best fast bowler in the country but he cannot contribute to the national team.
The collective loss to the ICL of other senior players who were nearing retirement has meant the transition to the young bunch has not been smooth. The IPL and excessive limited-overs cricket have consumed Scott Styris' Test career too. An injury at the same time to Jacob Oram hasn't helped either.
New Zealand admit they are the underdogs going into the Test series. But they love to confound the odds. When they went to India in 1999-2000, the hosts were busy steamrolling opponents at home. But on the first morning of the Test series, they bowled India out for 83. India managed to win the series but, by the end of it, some of their players said it was the hardest home series in a long time. New Zealand weren't supposed to be that hard to beat on Indian tracks then.
Ten years later, New Zealand aren't supposed to challenge India in a home series. Theoretically, man for man, India should beat New Zealand in any game, in any conditions. Try choosing a collective XI from both teams and only Daniel Vettori and Brendon McCullum will come close to making the cut. Vettori could edge out Harbhajan Singh as No. 1 spinner, and it would be touch and go between McCullum and Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
They weren't supposed to draw an ODI series against Australia, in Australia, in February. But for rain in the final ODI, they would have won it. New Zealand are dangerous underdogs. And they will relish the challenge of facing, in home conditions, a team trying to push for the No. 1 spot in the Test rankings. Also, when it comes to their head-to-head record against India, they still have the upper hand. And even when they have lost, they haven't been outplayed.
Each time, there's been one unheralded player to make a name for himself. Simon Doull was not a big star when he took 12 wickets at 16.25 each in two Tests in 1998-99. Nor was Daryl Tuffey when he took 13 at 8.69 apiece in two Tests in 2002-03.
Daniel Vettori is looking for someone similar to put his hand up, in far less helpful conditions. "For our bowlers, anytime you get one of those players out, it can sometimes be one of your best memories in cricket," Vettori said. "If the guy steps up and gets five or six wickets against this much-vaunted batting line-up, that's going to be a special day for the bowler and vice-versa, if someone scores runs. So we are trying to challenge the guys in the team through that aspect as well as trying to win games for New Zealand."
New Zealand are mindful of the challenge at hand. "We can take some confidence into this series knowing that India haven't [performed] that well [in New Zealand]," Vettori said. "But they probably haven't brought out as good a team as this in the past. This is one of the better batting line-ups you will ever see, and it is complemented by some very good bowlers. We have to play very well to beat these guys, regardless of their history here."
There will be few inhibitions about the task at hand. "You have to take them on," Vettori said. "The war of attrition probably won't work. I think we have to be aggressive, but in saying that we have got to be disciplined too. Those are the things we didn't quite get right in the one-day series."
The one-day series has set a dangerous precedent. The mental block that India came here with has been almost completely lifted through the way they outplayed the hosts in the ODIs. After three losses in that series, Vettori talked about maintaining the credibility of the one-day team. A tough series will maintain the credibility of their Test side, a win will set them forward by leaps, but they can't afford to get outplayed.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo