Stiff Kiwi test awaits Dhoni
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Stiff Kiwi test awaits Dhoni

Mahendra Singh Dhoni faces the toughest challenge of his fairytale-like career to date when he leads India in New Zealand from this month, his first full tour as captain.

cricket Updated: Feb 17, 2009 09:26 IST

Mahendra Singh Dhoni faces the toughest challenge of his fairytale-like career to date when he leads India in New Zealand from this month, his first full tour as captain.

The 27-year-old has reached dizzy heights in a short space of time, rising from a lowly and poorly paid railway employee in his home town Ranchi in eastern India to become one of the country's most celebrated sportsmen.

The dashing batsman-wicketkeeper, who made an uninspiring one-day debut in December 2004, captained India when senior players opted out of the inaugural Twenty20 world championships in South Africa in 2007.

Dhoni and his rank outsiders went on to win the tournament and he found himself elevated to both the one-day captaincy and deputy to Test skipper Anil Kumble after Rahul Dravid resigned.

Dhoni was finally given charge for all three forms last October when Kumble called it a day, even as critics feared the excessive workload of keeping wicket and leading the team could burn him out.

But the cool, composed and supremely fit Dhoni has shrugged off any concerns, securing wins in four of his five Tests as captain, with the fifth ending in a draw.

Under him, India have won 28 of 46 one-day matches and six of 10 Twenty20 internationals, raising Dhoni to the status of cult figure in the cricket-obsessed country.

Lucrative sponsorship deals have followed -- Dhoni currently endorses 19 products -- and he is the highest-paid home star in the Indian Premier League with a 1.5-million-dollar-a-year contract with the Chennai Super Kings.

Dhoni's India begin the New Zealand tour next week buoyed by victories in the recent home Test series against Australia and England, and a 4-1 rout of hosts Sri Lanka in a one-day series.

But Daniel Vettori's New Zealand, playing on home soil, will test the Indian team's mettle.

History is also against the tourists -- India last won a Test series in New Zealand 41 years ago, when Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi's team prevailed 3-1.

On the previous tour of New Zealand, in December 2002, India lost both Tests inside three days with totals of 161, 121, 99 and 154 in the four innings on bowler-friendly seaming wickets.

The Black Caps also went on to win the one-day series 5-2.

Only six players in the touring squad have played a Test in New Zealand before -- Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Dravid, Venkatsai Laxman, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh.

India's back-breaking itinerary of two Twenty20 internationals, followed by five one-day matches and three Tests, does not include a single practice match to acclimatise to the conditions.

"It's going to be a big challenge," Tendulkar, a veteran of six New Zealand tours, admitted to reporters last week.

"Ours is a fairly new team and playing in New Zealand is a completely different experience from what most are used to."

India, who arrive in New Zealand on February 20, open the tour with the two Twenty20 matches in Christchurch (Feb 25) and Wellington (Feb 27).

The five one-dayers will be played between March 3-14 before the first Test starts in Hamilton on March 18.

The remaining two Tests will be played in Napier (March 26-30) and Wellington (April 3-7).

First Published: Feb 17, 2009 09:23 IST