India’s race to the No 1 spot begins in right earnest on Friday and what stands in their way are not two teams determined to win at all costs. India’s greatest challenge will be the conditions they are faced with.
The team had a full workout on Thursday, beginning at 1 pm when the sun was at its fiercest and the sea breeze that eases the moisture that hangs heavy on Colombo was yet to set in. Some players had cool towels around their necks, others reached for energy drinks, but no one had any misconceptions about the task ahead of them.
The one long face in the camp was that of Gautam Gambhir, who cooled his heels in the dressing room awaiting a plane ticket back to Delhi. Gambhir, who picked up a groin strain playing for ONGC in the Corporate Trophy, aggravated the injury in a batting session on Wednesday and was advised 10 days’ rest.
He was replaced in the squad by Virat Kohli, but it is Dinesh Karthik who will be pressed into service in the short-term.
Success opening the batting in the West Indies, when Virender Sehwag was injured, and a strong hand in the occasional Test he has played mean Karthik is the first in line to play.
Rahul Dravid returns to his favourite No 3 position and will occupy that slot unless the situation demands a rethink.
In the last year or so, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been comfortable with keeping the batting order flexible, but the conditions here dictate that you have a batsman in the Dravid mould at the pivotal No 3 position.
While India’s batsmen have made a habit of posting tall totals in ODIs, often clearing the ropes much more than the opposition, they will be the first to realise that the conditions at the R Premadasa Stadium ensure that something just in excess of 200 is a fighting total.
Batting under lights is a test of a player’s ability to read the game quickly and adapt, for the atmosphere is such that the ball can be swinging and seaming one over, only to start gripping the surface and taking turn a few overs later.
The advantage India have over New Zealand, who they play first, is the presence of several batsmen who bowl handy part-time spin.
Yuvraj Singh’s brand of cheeky left-arm slow and Suresh Raina’s uncomplicated offbreaks give their captain the luxury of going into the game with just four specialist bowlers and room to play the extra batsman.
The New Zealand team, who have been cooped up in their hotel because of an extraordinary security advisory that prohibits them from leaving their living quarters in the middle of the most secure and peaceful times the island has seen in three decades, did not even practice a day before their second game, choosing instead to attend a private function as a group.
India will not lose sleep over either of their opponents, having beaten both in their own backyards in the last year.
They will, however, have to get their own game just right, and if they do so, the No 1 ranking will be a happy by-product of their efforts.