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Series win, not revenge, is the hosts’ top priority
- Chopra, Balaji to make debut; Sourav feels Bangar's exclusion from XIV is 'unlucky'

Ahmedabad: Stephen Fleming and Ashley Ross are adept at trying their hands at bridge and their card-playing guile was given full rein at the Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium on Tuesday morning.

As New Zealand players gathered around the pitch trying to figure out its intricacies, the team thinktank was not willing to make its mind be known. They might do one thing, they might do another but they were not willing to divulge details.

“Good dry wicket... (but) let’s wait and see how it looks like tomorrow,” was all what the visiting skipper said 24 hours before the start of the Videocon Test series.

Will you be going into the Test with two spinners, asked an impatient scribe. “Too early to predict... let’s wait till tomorrow morning,” was Fleming’s phlegmatic response.

Not that Sourav Ganguly’s approach was vastly different: “Good wicket... a bit of grass is visible”.

The Indian skipper may have tried to put up an indifferent face but the Motera wicket has not really gone down well with the players. It’s not a dust bowl as was supposed to be and will favour the batsmen, is the common belief.

“It may have some bounce initially but will turn low and slow as the match progresses. Not the sort that will enable you to run through the opposition twice quite easily,” said a team member who refused to be quoted.

So much of bad blood has flown between the rival camps following India’s drubbing in New Zealand earlier this year that this series is bound to attract much attention. After India’s meek capitulation on bouncy tracks, it is now only ‘natural’ for the Indians to give the Blacks Caps a fitting reply in conditions alien to them.

For New Zealand’s part, they are fully aware of the implications of this tour. Though both captains tried to play down the ‘revenge’ factor, the visitors have left nothing to chance.

Be it acclimatising in humid Brisbane or practising on turning tracks back home or Ross deciding to play the secret agent James Bond during the Irani Trophy, the build-up has been dramatic and, at times, exemplary.

The acclimatising bit has been important, specially coming from 10 degree centigrade and being thrown into 36 degrees. Fleming, however, appeared satisfied with the team’s progress.

“It’s been hot but not much humid. We’re pretty comfortable with the conditions,” he said. “We’ve had four days of play and two weeks to acclimatise. We’ve done everything to feel okay”.

While sources say that the Black Caps are likely to try out their two-man spin combination of Daniel Vettori and Paul Wiseman, the Indians are set to introduce two debutants. Opener Akash Chopra will partner Virender Sehwag while pacer Lakshmipathy Balaji will share the new ball with Zaheer Khan.

The dropping of Sanjay Bangar has, however, not gone down well with the Indian skipper. “It’s unfortunate Sanjay is not in the side for whatever reasons. His inclusion gives the option of an extra bowler. Now the fifth bowler’s role will have to be rotated between Sachin (Tendulkar), Sehwag and myself,” he said.

“Bangar’s done well for the team. He’s been unlucky. I wasn’t there at the selection meeting and can’t comment. He’ll definitely be in the reckoning,” Sourav added.

The Indians have decided to leave out Sairaj Bahutule, Avishkar Salvi and Yuvraj Singh from the XIV-strong squad.

The middle-order will consist of Rahul Dravid, Sachin, Sourav and Vangipurappu Laxman. All eyes will also be focused on local boy Parthiv Patel, who will play his first Test on his home ground.

Not without reason, ignoring Imran Khan’s doubt over Sachin’s match-winning capabilities, the Master Blaster will surely be a fear-factor for Fleming’s side. It was here when the two teams met last that Sachin had hit a double hundred. It’s another matter that the Test ended in a draw after India decided against enforcing the follow-on under controversial circumstances.

Sachin, for his part, declined comment on Imran’s statement.

The visitors’ performance has hardly been inspiring in the lead-up to the Test but the captains did not wish to read much into it. “We’re playing after a long lay-off. There’s not much play possible either. So not much should be looked into these side games. It’ll be different from now on,” remarked Fleming.

Sourav also echoed similar sentiments. “You’ve a different mindset going into the warm-up matches. They (New Zealand) will be a different side tomorrow”.

But, as Sourav stressed, for the hosts the “bottomline is to win the series”. That will, more than the ‘revenge’ factor, set the tone for the long season ahead.

Meanwhile, as part of the BCCI’s tie-up with UNAIDS, Umesh Patel, an HIV-positive child, will toss the coin in the Test.

TEAMS

India: Akash Chopra, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, V.V.S. Laxman, Parthiv Patel, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, L. Balaji, Zaheer Khan.

New Zealand (likely): Mark Richardson, Lou Vincent, Nathan Astle, Stephen Fleming, Craig McMillan, Scott Styris, Jacob Oram, Daniel Vettori, Robbie Hart, Paul Wiseman, Daryl Tuffey.

Umpires: David Shepherd and Rudi Koertzen.

Match Referee: Ranjan Madugale.

Match timings: 9.30am-12 noon; 12.30-2.30 pm; 2.45 pm till the end.

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