At the very last chance to test their combination before the World Cup, India will field their full-strength batting line-up in a 50-over game for the first time in 15 months. The batsmen had faltered against Australia on Sunday but will be bolstered by the return of Sachin Tendulkar against New Zealand.
Tendulkar had missed that warm-up game because of a niggle but will play on Wednesday, in what will be his third one-day match since his double-century against South Africa in Gwalior a year ago. He had a long batting session on Tuesday morning during India’s practice, and also spent time working on his fielding, showing no signs of the hamstring injury that forced him to return home midway through the one-day series in South Africa a month ago.
Tendulkar will displace Gautam Gambhir from the top of the order to No. 3, the position at which Virat Kohli had much of his recent success. Kohli’s form swept him to second spot in the ICC one-day rankings, but even that hasn’t ensured him a place in the starting line-up. Wednesday’s game will give Kohli a chance to show his prowess lower down the order, perhaps at No .6, a position where another contender, Suresh Raina, is considered a better bet.
The other player in India’s squad to miss the first warm-up, Zaheer Khan, will sit out of the sold-out game against New Zealand as well. MS Dhoni was quick to emphasise that Zaheer, who has been injury prone, would be fit in time for the World Cup opener against Bangladesh on February 19. “He has a very, very mild groin strain, nothing to worry about,” Dhoni said. “We can give him rest, so we are giving him rest, and will use him when the proper tournament starts.”
Zaheer didn’t bowl in the nets on Tuesday, though he batted for 45-minutes and also tested himself with a series of short sprints under the supervision of physiotherapist Nitin Patel. Zaheer is the only fast bowler guaranteed a starting place, and his absence gives the others – Ashish Nehra, Sreesanth and Munaf Patel – who had little work against Australia another opportunity to audition for the World Cup.
India had sneaked to victory two days ago despite the below-par score and the initial ineffectiveness of the seamers because their spinners demolished the Australian batting. Piyush Chawla, the legspinner who was the most debated selection in India’s World Cup squad, was the star, ripping out the middle-order during a spell of 5-0-9-4. Under Dhoni, India have generally played three-seamers and one-specialist spinner, with a spinning allrounder and part-timers combining for the remaining ten overs. Another strong performance from Chawla will leave Dhoni pondering the inclusion of two specialist slow bowlers, especially on turning tracks, and only two quicks.
In the previous World Cup tune-up at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, South Africa had crushed Zimbabwe by eight wickets after bundling them out for 152. Their captain, Graeme Smith, had been critical of the pitch, terming it “slow and dead” and “under-prepared”, and called for better surfaces in the actual tournament. Dhoni wasn’t sure how the Chennai track would play but urged the Indian side to lift their performance. “We need to pick up a bit of intensity on the field,” he said. “This being the last warm-up game, the intensity should be a bit up on the field [compared to the game against Australia].”