India face tour's toughest Test
If one of the challenges of Test cricket is playing in various conditions, then any team aspiring to be the best team in the world should visit the Basin Reserve in the first week of April.
Located beneath Mount Victoria and Mount Cook in windy Wellington, the Basin Reserve is totally uncovered. Most of the seating is in the grass banks, and the few stands that exist are not high at all. With winter approaching and the Southerlies blowing with gusto, the players will definitely feel the need to protect against the cold. Wellington in early April is New Zealand's equivalent of a dry and dusty Ahmedabad in October. Thank goodness some things like the weather can't be tailored, or else, going by the trend of homogenous pitches, the sameness would have completely taken over.
To the disappointment of many, India have largely played in conditions similar to those at home so far on the tour. Admittedly, Christchurch was cold but the flat pitch at the AMI Stadium didn't test them much. India struggled on a nippy pitch in Auckland but the one-day series had already been won by then. In Hamilton and Napier, the Indians found even the weather to their liking - it was warm and sunny. And the less said about the pitch at McLean Park the better.
The Indians arrived in Wellington with a 1-0 lead in the series and, when they reached the Basin Reserve two days before the Test, the skies were overcast, the temperature was about 10 degrees Celsuis, and winds were blowing around 30kmph. That's one-third of the speed of a Harbhajan Singh quicker one and about 23% of the normal pace of the fast bowlers. Thursday and Friday are expected to be sunnier, but the forecast for the weekend - the second and third days of the Test - is cloudy.
The Indian team trained for three hours on Wednesday, but not many shed their jackets, gloves and beanies. VVS Laxman wore a thick jacket, while Virender Sehwag had a sleeveless sweater. One of the players said it was even colder than their last visit to New Zealand in 2002-03, while another said he had encountered similar conditions in England. Another member of the team said that the cold was manageable but the winds presented a challenge.
That even the New Zealand players are finding it cold shows just how big a factor the conditions will be. "I think they [India] will find it a little bit cold," Brendon McCullum said. "If we find it cold here, no doubt they will be freezing. I am sure, from their point of view, they will be hoping that the wind dies down and the sun comes out but, from ours, it will be great to have them on the park when the conditions are like this. I am sure we are going to find the conditions a little bit more pleasurable than they are."
Chris Martin said that New Zealand were used to the weather at the Basin Reserve, a ground on which they have "had some success in the past". "It's something a lot of touring teams dislike and quite a lot of people playing here domestically find it tough as well," Martin said. "But it's character building, and is definitely something the supporters will have to put up with as well.
"I know most subcontinental sides that have come out here find it very difficult to keep their bodies warm and I think they might want their bowlers to get us out even quicker. But I suppose that's one of the things you have to put up with just as we put up with the heat in India and places like that."
Gary Kirsten, India's coach, said his team was looking forward to the challenge posed by the conditions. "Little bit cold for the Indian guys, but we have adjusted pretty well," Kirsten said. "The guys are looking forward to it. There has been talk about the third Test within our camp. We have got a fair amount of rest watching the guys bat [in Napier]. So I think the bowlers are pretty keen to get out there."
Kirsten also said it was too early to change any plans because of the windy conditions. "We will have to see when we get out there," he said. "Conditions look good certainly for the first few days. But it does effect things a little bit, but you can only make those decisions when on the field."
When the sun is out, the Basin Reserve presents the spectators one of the best viewing experiences for a Test match. Without doubt it is the best cricket ground in New Zealand, and is protected by an Act of Parliament. It is fitting it should present a visiting team with the toughest test of the tour.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo