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DILEEP PREMACHANDRAN
TWELFTH MAN

Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief of Wisden India

Could complacency be a bigger threat than the Kiwis?

Benazir Bhutto had just won the election held after Zia-ul-Haq's death in an unexplained plane crash the last time New Zealand tasted success in a Test match on Indian soil. George Best, the elder and not Dubya, had just seen off Michael Dukasis in the presidential election when John Wright's team opened the series in Bangalore, a match they lost by 172 runs after a mystery virus laid several team members low on the rest day.

Winning in India wasn't an easy proposition in those days, but the New Zealanders had one potent weapon. The 37-year-old Richard Hadlee went past Ian Botham's tally of 373 wickets on the first morning of the first Test, and though he found the tour something of a hardship physically, his mastery of swing and cut was evident in Mumbai. A match haul of 10 for 88, coupled with John Bracewell's 6 for 51 in the second innings, inspired a comprehensive victory.

In nine Tests since, New Zealand haven't added to their two win in India. You have to go back to the year of the moon landing (1969) for the first, when Hedley Howarth, a left-arm spinner, eclipsed India's famed slow blowers with 9 for 100 at the old ground in Nagpur.

New Zealand will hope that another leftie with similarly excellent control and variations in flight can do wonders when they take on MS Dhoni and a team that has not lost a series since Sri Lanka in 2008. Daniel Vettori is the only New Zealander who would be a contender for a present-day World XI, and will need to be both talisman and tourniquet against a line-up that proved too robust for Australia earlier this month.

New Zealand were routed 4-0 on a one-day tour of Bangladesh recently, but after a scathing assessment of their performance from Mark Greatbatch, the coach, they'll unlikely to be quite as inept in India. If they need encouragement, they can find it in memories of the last tour, when a couple of fine spells from Daryl Tuffey so nearly ambushed India in Mohali. Then, as in early October against Australia, the composure and class of VVS Laxman saved the hosts.

There's little doubt that the tour of South Africa in December-January – a contest between the two best sides in the game at the moment – is occupying most Indian thoughts and the only real danger against New Zealand will be complacency. Fortunately, Gary Kirsten, the coach, and the senior players have seen and played enough cricket to know that there's no such thing as a foregone conclusion when 22 men take to the field.

It's hard to predict what will happen in Ahmedabad given how drastically different the last two Tests there have been. In 2008, South Africa rolled India over for 76 and went on to win by an innings. Last year, Rahul Dravid's magnificent century took India from 32 for 4 to 426. Sri Lanka replied with 760, and over the last four days the balance between bat and ball was so absurdly skewed that bowlers on both sides would have wondered why they opted for such a Godforsaken profession.

Hyderabad hasn't hosted a Test since India clinched the series against New Zealand back in 1988, while Nagpur wasn't a happy hunting ground in February when a spate of injuries and the world's best bowler, Dale Steyn, combined to scuttle Dhoni's side. With pitches likely to have some more life early in the season, draws are unlikely and New Zealand will need to bat with the resolve that they showed on the subcontinent under Stephen Fleming's leadership to escape a 3-0 hammering.

For India, with places on the plane to South Africa still available, the concerns centre on the pace bowling. Zaheer Khan was the standout bowler against Australia, with 12 wickets at 21, but the support from both Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth was patchy at best. Both are capable of far better and with so much cricket to be played in a season that culminates with the World Cup, the onus is on them to take some of the burden off Zaheer's 32-year-old shoulders.

Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha bowled well in tandem against Australia, and will no doubt have watched footage of how diffident and vulnerable New Zealand were against Bangladesh's trio of spinners. Dhoni has won 12 of his 18 Tests as captain, and that number should rise to 15 by the end of November provided he and his team keep their eyes on the ball.

 
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