India will not only look to wrap up the three-Test series against New Zealand but also keep an eye on regaining the No.1 spot in the ICC Test Championships rankings when the two sides renew their acquaintance at the Eden Gardens on Friday.
India were the No.1 Test team for a short while during their tour of the West Indies but failed to rubber-stamp their position as the fourth Test was washed out after only 22 overs of play on the first day at the Queen’s Park Oval.
Arch-rivals Pakistan made the most of the involuntary gaffe to become the numero uno side in the longest version of the game for the first time as they gained 111 points in their drawn series against England.
At home though, India have been impregnable over the last few years and a win in the series’ second Test will once again catapult them to the top of the heap, besides clinching the three-Test series. India now lead 1-0 after a 197 run victory in the first Test at Kanpur.
A draw would make India unbeaten at home for 13 Tests in a row, the longest since February 15, 1980, when England beat India by 10 wickets to end a 20-match unbeaten streak. The feat will be befitting as the game is slated to be India’s 250th Test match on home soil.
The hosts, though, suffered a blow when in-form opener K.L. Rahul was ruled out due to a hamstring injury, opening the door for seasoned campaigner Gautam Gambhir to make a comeback into the Indian team after a two-year hiatus.
It remains to be seen whether Gambhir makes it to the final eleven or Shikhar Dhawan — of late patchy — gets the nod.
Uncapped Haryana off-spinner Jayant Yadav has also received a call-up with pacer Ishant Sharma still recuperating from the chikungunya mosquito-related illness.
The 26 year old’s inclusion underlines the think-tank’s inclination towards drafting in more spinners against the visitors, who are struggling to cope with Indian tweakers.
In the first Test, tweakers Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja turned the knife on the visitors by accounting for 16 of the 20 wickets that fell in the two innings.
In the batting department, Cheteshwar Pujara hit back at his critics by scoring 62 and 78 at a much improved strike rate of 56.88 and 51.31 at Kanpur. The talented willower would hope to continue in the same vein.
Under scanner batsman Rohit Sharma, who justified his selection with an unbeaten 68 in the second innings at Kanpur, has always loved to pile up runs at the Eden.
Captain Virat Kohli, who did not get runs in the first Test, would be eager to come up with a big score on the iconic ground, where he averages only 9.66 in two matches.
The Eden pitch, generally a slow turner, has grass sprayed all over it and, though according to sources the Indian team management has asked for heavy pruning, it remains to be seen whether it will be as spin-friendly as the hosts would like it to be.
If the pruning is at all done, India could consider opting for three spinners as early indications at the team’s first practice showed Amit Mishra, who did not play the first match, could be drafted in along with Ashwin and Jadeja.
New Zealand, who have played India at the Eden only twice (1955-56, 1965) with both matches ending in draws, have been wracked by injuries. Spinner Mark Craig, who was especially included in the squad keeping in mind Indian conditions, has now been replaced by 36-year old Jeetan Patel.
Furthermore, batting allrounder Jimmy Neesham, who did not play the first match, is also sidelined owing to injury.
Notwithstanding the emphatic Indian victory at Green Park, the Kiwis, led by top-draw batsman Kane Williamson, were by no means pushovers.
“We need to dominate for longer sessions,” coach Mike Hesson said of the Black Caps’ performance in the first Test.
Both teams will be hoping that rain stays away for all five days, despite a Met office prediction to the contrary.
For the record, India have lost to New Zealand only twice on home soil, while winning 14 of the 32 encounters. Sixteen matches have ended in stalemates.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Shikhar Dhawan, Ravindra Jadeja, Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara, Amit Mishra, Ravichandran Ashwin, Wriddhiman Saha, Rohit Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Murali Vijay, Jayant Yadav, Gautam Gambhir
New Zealand: Kane Williamson (c), Doug Bracewell, Matt Henry, Luke Ronchi, Ish Sodhi, Henry Nicholls, Neil Wagner, Trent Boult, Martin Guptill, Tom Latham, Jeetan Patel, Mitchell Santner, Ross Taylor, B.J. Walting