I think India have never started a Test series in New Zealand as favourites. However, their strong performance in the one-dayers has ensured that they begin the first Test as the team to beat. The Test specialists, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman and others, have been in New Zealand for a pretty long time, and they must have got acclimatised.
I am very impressed with the calm and balance that MS Dhoni and the support team of Gary Kirsten and Paddy Upton have brought to this team. They seem to be enjoying themselves, soaking in the sights, sounds and adventure that is the essence of New Zealand. It's been good for the Indians so far, and they seem to be looking forward to the Test series.
I was really pleased to meet Lakshmipathy Balaji, who made his international debut when I was with the team. He was a dear guy, and a pleasure to coach. So I am happy that he has a chance to stage a comeback. It's a toss-up between him and Munaf Patel for the third seamer's place, and indications are that the team might go in with Balaji.
The wicket at Seddon Park in Hamilton is pretty hard and looks good for batting. I remember in 2003, I could stick my thumb into the wicket - it was that soft and grassy. Though this time around too, there will be movement and some bounce, particularly in the first two hours, but once you get past that period, the wicket will improve into a good batting track. For the Indians, it's got to be a four-word plan — bat once, bat big. They should opt to bat if they win the toss, because they can back their formidable batting line-up to see them through the first couple of hours.
The Indians should expect more bounce in the wickets during the Test series. They had trouble adjusting to it in the Auckland ODI. Also, since we are approaching autumn, the light will come into equation. I think the next two Tests will be affected by fading light, and I am sure both Dhoni and Daniel Vettori will be aware of this. Therefore, the first Test, which is usually crucial, becomes a must-win game for both sides. Neither would want to be 0-1 down.
Test cricket does not really hinge on any one aspect, but I feel that if India manage to take their batting dominance from the one-dayers into the Tests, Vettori and Co. will find the going tough. India's aim should be to bat once and bat big, i.e. score over 400. They have the ammo in their batting line-up and they must use it.