Final Test, final frontier
It has been 42 days since India arrived in Christchurch - on February 20, exactly 41 years to the day they first won a Test in New Zealand - to correct what they regard an aberration. Since their arrival, India have charmed the New Zealanders and have been charmed in turn. They have won hearts and have lost theirs to the breathtaking locales. On flat batting pitches, they have raised the bar higher and they have walked the sky too - literally - in Auckland.
But with the last match of the tour coming up, India have a final obstacle to cross, one that touring sides generally find the toughest - winning in windy Wellington. This is only the third time a Test in New Zealand is starting in April and only the second in Wellington. Sri Lanka lost that match comprehensively in 2005, by an innings and 38 runs.
The uncertainty over MS Dhoni's availability due to a back injury and the weather are obvious hurdles but the pitch at the Basin Reserve, which was perceived to be a threat, looks surprisingly brown and dry. "I was expecting a green track," Dhoni, said. "Quite similar to the... 2003 tracks... [But this one] looks like a nice track, so bowlers will have to put in the hard work again. For the batsmen, if they are careful and if their approach is good, you may see big scores on the board. Of course I am a bit surprised."
New Zealand, a wonderfully hospitable country, has perhaps extended its generosity to the pitches. Daniel Vettori and Andy Moles, the New Zealand coach, have all along asked for tracks that are more responsive to the seamers, like the one for the Auckland ODI, but haven't been obliged.
Still, India need to take that last step to win their first series in New Zealand in 41 years. What had been taken for granted after the Hamilton Test does not look such a formality any longer following a spirited New Zealand performance in the second Test at Napier.
Yuvraj Singh, suddenly, doesn't look like a natural Test batsman when put under pressure. It didn't help that he had to field in the slips because of a finger injury Sachin Tendulkar picked up in Hamilton. Over in Wellington too, Yuvraj has been practising slip catches.
Also India's bowling and fielding doesn't look encouraging on a flat track, against batsmen in good form and enjoying some luck. The way they let New Zealand score 619 from 23 for 3 in Napier being a prime example. Napier was not entirely a damaging experience, though. One of the more aggressive characters in the team put his head down to save the Test and displayed the team's resolve.
It showed India are capable of damage control if their natural "flair" lets them down once in a while. "I think we showed in this last Test that we can play two different kinds of cricket," Gary Kirsten, their coach, said. "I think it's important that people try and play their natural games and play as positively as they can. But there might be situations where they have to play slightly differently and I think we did that really well."
The time has come to clear the final frontier in New Zealand. This is one of the best teams India have sent out to the country, to face one of the less accomplished New Zealand sides. If they win, it would only be expected. If they lose, the New Zealand frontier will remain unconquered. All through the last 42 days, India have tried their best to put the past behind them. But if they don't leave with the Test series in the bag, the legend of New Zealand will embed itself in the psyches of future teams. And who knows, given India's sporadic visits, when the next tour will be?
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo