For the first time since arriving in New Zealand, you didn’t have to duck and weave as you watched the Indian team at a practice session. The open wicket practices with run-scoring targets set, the tail-enders slogging the ball all over the shop and the top-order fine-tuning a particular facet of big-hitting were all put under wraps. Instead, the focus was on defence, negotiation and survival on the eve of the first Test.
MS Dhoni and his team arrived straight at Seddon Park after a two-hour drive from Auckland and it was straight down to business. In an extended full practice session, the batsmen and bowlers were put through their paces. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were in the thick of things, their days of playing for New Zealand state sides well behind them.
There was also every indication that Lakshmipathy Balaji will make a return to Test cricket for the first time in four years. If he does play, the fairytale return will be complete. Since multiple injuries derailed a promising career, Balaji has been a model of perseverance and grit, working closely with WV Raman, Tamil Nadu’s coach, to rebuild his action, fitness levels and indeed his career.
In Monday’s net session, Balaji had an extended bowl and asked searching questions of most batsmen with movement in the air and off the pitch. The one tricky question for Dhoni to answer is the third seamer's slot and you would think Munaf Patel, short on confidence, has done enough in the ODIs to bowl himself out of the side for the first Test.
Whoever finally gets the nod —Balaji or Munaf — should enjoy the conditions at Seddon Park. Although Karl Jackson, the groundsman, insisted that the liberal grass covering on the surface will be all but removed — only 7mm will be left, that too to bind the surface, not offer lateral movement — there should be more in the surface for quick bowlers than in the ODIs.
India have the advantage of an all-round balanced squad that will make it impossible for the New Zealand team to produce a pitch that will favour one style of bowler unduly. Zaheer Khan, on the verge of 200 Test scalps, and Ishant Sharma are well backed up by Harbhajan Singh and the batting line-up is well stronger than the home side’s.
New Zealand will be banking on the fact that they have a group of individuals who can come together seamlessly and take on the biggest names in the business. Martin Guptill’s elevation to Test cricket, alongside Tim McIntosh, the specialist Test opener, will give solidity to an order that has enough firepower down the order in Jesse Ryder, Brendon McCullum and James Franklin. India’s stars will feel that familiar flutter of butterflies in the stomach.