High Noon

There's something ironic about the fact that Stephen Fleming's abdominal injury has given the perennially crocked Chris Cairns a chance to lead New Zealand against India at Hyderabad. Fleming admitted defeat in his fitness battle, leaving Cairns with just over 24 hours to plan his second bite of the captaincy cherry. The first taste was sweet enough - a 23-run victory over a heavily fancied Australian side at Sydney in the VB Series (2001-2002).
For India, most of the injuries have been to the psyche, a result of the Adam Gilchrist-Ricky Ponting blitz in Bangalore two days ago. A week ago, you knew this would be a crucial game, with a place in the final at stake. But now, with India's selectors having delayed the announcement of the Test squad to Australia until after this game, there's far more at stake - shades of High Noon in fact. The likes of Aavishkar Salvi, Ajit Agarkar, Yuvraj Singh and Hemang Badani will be under the microscope in more ways than one, an unwelcome distraction in a match that India simply have to win.

The TVS Cup has been a sobering experience for both teams. At the press conference to unveil the trophy, both Fleming and Rahul Dravid, India's stand-in captain, had talked of how evenly matched the three teams were. On the field, they turned out to be anything but that, with an Australian outfit comprising second-string bowlers far superior to brittle opposition.

New Zealand's batsmen let them down badly in the games against Australia, while for India, it's the bowlers who have been culpable. That should make for a fascinating contest, on a pitch where India piled up 376 for 2 the last time they clashed here.

New Zealand don't have any selection dilemmas, with only 12 fit players to choose from. For India, the onus is on the management to decide whether or not a place in the final is a bigger priority than taking a look at hopefuls for Australia. If Agarkar and Salvi both play, Zaheer Khan - a dreadful disappointment so far this home season - will drop to the bench. For Badani to get a look in, VVS Laxman or Mohammad Kaif will have to make way. Given his abysmal record with the bat over the past year, Kaif appears the favourite for the chop.

The batting order will also be tinkered with. Now would be as good a time as any to reunite Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar at the top of the order, with an out-of-sorts Virender Sehwag being asked to provide a late-innings impetus if needed. To be fair to the Indians, they batted magnificently for 40 overs in pursuit of a mirage against Australia. A repeat will most likely guarantee victory.

There's also likely to be a change on the spin front, with Harbhajan Singh coming in to partner Murali Kartik. Kartik is another player on the fringes, and a strong performance from him could leave the selectors with a major headache.

Fleming's injury gives Chris Nevin a reprieve, but much will depend on how well Cairns, Scott Styris and Craig McMillan perform in a pressure situation. New Zealand fretted and fumed about the pitches at Faridabad and Pune. On what appears likely to be a perfect batting strip, excuses won't be an option. They can only hope that certain Indian players are looking too far ahead to have their eye on the ball.


India (likely) Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly (capt), VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid (wk), Virender Sehwag, Hemang Badani, Yuvraj Singh, Ajit Agarkar, Murali Kartik, Harbhajan Singh, Aavishkar Salvi.

New Zealand Chris Nevin, Lou Vincent, Scott Styris, Craig McMillan, Jacob Oram, Chris Cairns (capt), Chris Harris, Brendon McCullum (wk), Daniel Vettori, Kyle Mills, Daryl Tuffey.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.