| Mohammed Kaif stretches during practice in Rajkot on Wednesday. (AFP)
Rajkot: Had circumstances been different, the Black Caps would have moaned the oppressive heat. However, with less than 85 overs being bowled in the elements’-marred tour opener (Vizag), anything but rain is welcome. Even if that change takes the form of 32 degrees plus on the mercury-scale. Back in New Zealand, it’s closer to 11 degrees.
“Oh, we’re coping well... Indeed, this is India,” quipped captain Stephen Fleming, after a focussed workout at the Madhavrao Scindia Cricket Ground. Come Thursday and the visitors will have a taste of India A (led by Mohammed Kaif) over three days, and the match is as important for them as the many hopefuls in the A ranks.
[It did rain, though, late on Wednesday evening and showers overnight could bring about a delayed start.]
For the Black Caps, on their first visit in four years, it will be a build-up to Test No. 1 (Ahmedabad, from next Wednesday). The combination must be got right and the Jacob Orams and Darryl Tuffeys have to get used to the conditions. Both have been named in the XI.
Similarly, from openers Sadagopan Ramesh and Akash Chopra (a classy centurion in Vizag) to Hemang Badani, Deep Dasgupta and Murali Kartik, a clutch of players are seeking to either force a recall or get a first-time call-up. Captain Kaif, too, is in much the same boat — the last of his four Tests was 26 months ago, in Sri Lanka.
Incidentally, much of the attention will also be on Gujarat quick Munaf Patel, who has received high marks from the guru of new-ball bowlers — Dennis Lillee.
“Main nervous nahin hoon,” Munaf, who resides in a village in Bharuch district, insisted during a chat with The Telegraph.
The outing will be the 20-year-old’s maiden first-class game, but he shouldn’t get carried away by the somewhat green look of the wicket. As coach Sandeep Patil put it: “In these parts, that’s misleading.” For Patil, this is his latest A assignment — again, decided upon in an ad-hoc manner.
Predictably, both captains spoke about the match being a “big opportunity.” Elaborating, Fleming said: “Touring India has much to do with adjustments... Equally, every game is an opportunity... Looking to the next three days, I expect the bowlers to be under pressure and it’s going to be challenging...”
Asked whether he had a trump card, Fleming laughed: “The entire...Of course, we’ll be missing Shane Bond’s individual brilliance but, to create history (New Zealand haven’t ever won a series in India), our team will have to do it collectively... Actually, the history element has whetted our appetite.”
[Perhaps, it’s because of this collective bit that the Black Caps haven’t appointed a vice-captain. Fleming defended thus: “We have five-six players who can do the job and, so, it will be unfair to single out one...”]
Clearly, by way of preparation (practising on artificial pitches with loose soil to suddenly being exposed to deafening noise in the background to...), New Zealand haven’t left anything to chance. And, to specifically tackle off the field ‘issues’, they have a psychologist’s guidance.
“Yes, he largely helps shape our response to things outside cricket... In India, for instance, it’s important to adjust culturally as well,” the captain explained.
Fleming, by the way, had enormous praise for the Saurashtra Cricket Association-provided facilities. “World class, really,” was the captain’s compliment. More than anything else, that should undo some of the damage caused by the India-West Indies ODI fiasco here 11 months ago.
While the visitors have announced their side, the absence of our national selectors — regrettably, not one of the five had arrived by 7.00 pm on Wednesday — fuelled speculation on the likely A XI. Apparently, there’s a tussle between Rohan Gavaskar and Mithun Manhas, as also between quicks R.P.Singh and Sree Santh.
One learns, however, that Rohan and Santh may well make it.
India A (likely): Sadagopan Ramesh, Akash Chopra, Connor Williams, Mohammed Kaif, Hemang Badani, Rohan Gavaskar, Deep Dasgupta, Murali Kartik, Sarandeep Singh, Munaf Patel, Sree Santh.
New Zealand: Mark Richardson, Lou Vincent, Stephen Fleming, Scott Styris, Nathan Astle, Craig McMillan, Jacob Oram, Robbie Hart, Daniel Vettori, Paul Wiseman, Daryl Tuffey.
Umpires: Vijay Chopra, Manjit Singh Mahal.
Squad on Saturday
Meanwhile, the Team India XIV for the Ahmedabad Test will be picked on Saturday. It’s possible that the selection for the second Test (Mohali) will also be made the same day.
The venue, though, isn’t clear — either Mumbai or Rajkot itself.