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As they fly to New Zealand, India hit the road to 2015

Dhoni believed that his young team should expect a number of new challenges in New Zealand.

MS Dhoni Indian captain MS Dhoni former cricketer and Indian captain Kapil Dev exchange the World cup trophy during the BCCI awards in Mumbai on Saturday. PTI

So well-travelled is the modern-day Indian cricketer that it’s tough to imagine any foreign country being beyond the horizon for him. To fathom that any cricketing land, especially a Test-playing one, could be virgin territory. But for many in the present Indian squad, their next destination, New Zealand, seems like one.

Whereas most in the present ODI squad, which departed for the southern hemisphere late on Saturday night, have made up to at least two visits to England, the Caribbean and South Africa — and one to Australia two years ago — only four of them have played international cricket in New Zealand before. After all, the last time India travelled there was five years ago. Only skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina and Ishant Sharma among the 16-member party were part of the team, then.

Speaking on the eve of the Indian team’s departure, even Dhoni believed that his young team should expect a number of new challenges in New Zealand — with their oddly shaped grounds and windy climes. Just like he had to back in 2009 during his maiden visit there.

“I remember being confused with some of the fielding positions because of the unusual shape of some of the grounds there. So when we used have a short fine-leg, we had to keep him so wide that from the wicket-keeper’s angle he was almost at square-leg but still the ball kept going to him. It does take some time to get used to it,” he said on Saturday.

With India’s first international assignment, the first of five ODIs in Napier, only scheduled for January 19, they will get a whole week of acclimatisation. The next month-and-a-half will also form a part of their preparation for the 2015 World Cup when they will return to this part of the world. The defending champions are scheduled to play two of their league matches-against Ireland and Zimbabwe — in Hamilton and Auckland — with the potential of a quarterfinal and semi-final too in the island nation.

Dhoni acknowledged this trip as being more important. He also seemed to expect the ODI pitches in New Zealand to provide more opportunities for high-scoring contests as compared to those in South Africa, which had enough spice in them to make the likes of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel increasingly menacing.

“They also use drop-in wickets in certain grounds. So there is a potential for high-scoring matches, especially with the new rule changes, especially if it is a flat wicket and a small ground and there’s a big partnership. They have some interesting talent in their team. The next World Cup will be held in Australia and New Zealand so most of the players will get a feel of the conditions there,” he said.

India might have returned from their last overseas sojourn, to South Africa last month, winless across both formats. But Dhoni didn’t seem too chuffed about the constant criticism meted out to his team regarding their recent failures abroad. He preferred to focus on what he believed were the positives, especially the return of tearaway pacer Varun Aaron and the first-time inclusion of Karnataka all-rounder Stuart Binny.

“It’s good that Varun has come back after a long injury break. He is fit now. He’s done well in the domestic season. Stuart is someone who can definitely swing the ball and also has the batting ability to come down the order and score runs. It’s exciting,” said Dhoni.

He also said that the competition in the fast bowling department was a healthy one and that it was good to have all the fast bowlers available for selection. The five ODIs will be followed by two Tests in Auckland and Wellington. And for the first time, India will have six fast bowlers to choose from.

But the focus will once again be on the young Indian batsmen, most of whom prospered in the tough climes of South Africa in December. Dhoni’s failures though were stark and his dismissals at crucial junctures in Johannesburg and Durban let his team down. While he did accept that it was time for him to improve his performances outside the subcontinent in the longer format, the Indian captain also wanted his tail to contribute more.

“If I am batting at No. 7 and I lose the batsmen at the other end and if the tail don’t spend enough time in the middle then more often than not I go for my shots. Like in South Africa I remember in one game there were eight players on the boundary looking for that big shot, that is something we want to improve,” he said.

Kapil, Ashwin honoured

Mumbai: Former India captain Kapil Dev was honoured with the C K Nayudu Lifetime Achievement Award by the BCCI at its seventh annual awards ceremony in Mumbai. Ravichandran Ashwin was bestowed with the Polly Umrigar Award for being the best international cricket last season. Rohit Sharma received the Dilip Sardesai Award, for being India’s best cricketer in the recent home Test series against the West Indies. (ENS)

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