NZ the last frontier for India
The Indians will start favourites today when they take the field for the first Twenty20 game, which kicks off their tour of New Zealand. MS Dhoni's men are the world champions in this format, and while their team is untried in these conditions, they exuded a calm confidence when I met them.
The leadership of Dhoni, coupled with the presence of Gary Kirsten, Robin Singh and Venkatesh Prasad ensures that the Indians are a happy and assured unit. Dhoni had always struck me as a player who had a presence, so his fitting into a leadership role so effortlessly does not surprise me.
It's the first time I have met the guys since the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies, and they look more confident, experienced and happy as a group now. It gives me a lot of satisfaction when I see how wonderfully Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir and many of the others who made their debut during my time as coach have blossomed.
The Indians have taken on board a good work ethic, bridged the gap between juniors and seniors and seem to be putting team before individual performances, which is why they have had good results over the past 18 months.
Gambhir, Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma — none of these guys have played in New Zealand. It's being seen as the ‘last frontier’ for this Indian side, but as I scroll down India's T20 squad for today's game, I see that only Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan have played in New Zealand before. India had a terrible time when they played here in 2003, and part of the problem was the poor pitches that the games were played on. Things will be different this time as we in New Zealand realise that the pitches must be conducive to good, spectator-friendly cricket. The pitches will be a lot more balanced in nature, but it's freezing at the moment and if this weather lasts, it will be tough going for the visitors.
The New Zealand squad has quite a few new faces too, so it will be interesting to see how these two young sides face-off. The Indian youngsters like Rohit Sharma, Pragyan Ojha, Ishant Sharma and Suresh Raina have had more international exposure than some of New Zealand's youngsters like Neil Broom, Nathan McCullum, Iain O'Brien and Martin Guptill.
The team's recent successes, particularly the one-day win last year in Australia seems to have given these lads a boost. That tri-series win, coming as it did after a controversial Test series, acted as a confidence-builder and as a result this Indian team now feels better equipped to play outside home.
The other huge plus has been the emergence of Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma as possibly the finest new-ball pair in world cricket. Ishant played here with an Under-19 side a few years ago, so that experience might help him. Zaheer has really blossomed after the injuries that plagued him early on in his career.
The stage is set for a great contest between two sides that have hardly seen or played against each other.