Napier, Jan 18: India would look to gain some valuable experience and confidence when they clash with New Zealand in a five-match ODI series, beginning here tomorrow, as Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his boys will begin the defence of their World Cup title on these very shores next year.
The reigning World Champions will also be looking to defend their number one ranking, in this format of the game, against the eighth-ranked hosts.
Unlike their previous tour in December, this trip imparts greater significance to India. Against South Africa, the Indian team management decided to use the three-match series as a learning exercise for the ensuing Test series.
It worked up to an extent against their formidable opponents with their young Test side losing the two-match series only on the last day of the tour at Durban.
While the importance of taking that learning forward in the Tests versus New Zealand cannot be neglected, at the same time, the Men in Blue need to up the ante in ODIs as the run-up to their title defence officially begins.
India will travel to Australia in the latter part of the 2014-15 season, which will be a final dress-rehearsal, and as such this series against the Black Caps is an important marker in their preparation for the World Cup.
The 16-man squad that has arrived here is already a much settled unit, losing only to Pakistan at home and South Africa away in the calendar year 2013, winning six consecutive ODI contests in between.
While this provides a good starting point, there are important questions that need to be answered. The first of them is related to the opening combination, with both Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma not doing much in South Africa, ODIs and Tests combined.
Sharma perhaps has more time, given that he bats in the middle order in the longer format and particularly because on away tours, the role of openers to give a solid start becomes more important.
Murali Vijay performed that bit to perfection in the Tests there, further highlighting Dhawans plight, who scored only 88 runs in six innings (avg. 14.66) in Africa.
Even so, the toughest question pertains to the middle order, given that a misfiring Yuvraj Singh is no longer part of this ODI squad.
The number four spot is proving to be a pain ever since this season started against Australia at home. Suresh Raina moved back to this spot in that series but the southpaw himself is struggling for consistency.
Either he needs to draw experience of finishing the innings in these conditions, batting at number five or six, or he needs to learn how to drive the batting from number four, in preparation of the World Cup next year. Doing both is not an option for him or the team management.
At the same time, Raina will also do well to consider Yuvraj's axing as a stern reminder of his own form. Although he continues to be a great resource for the ODI side, with his sharp fielding and bowling skills thrown in, his first job is to score runs and they have only come at a trickle since last October (207 runs in 9 innings, avg. 23).
He will need to watch out for Ambati Rayudu and Stuart Binny who will come into contention at some point in this series. Especially the latter if Raina continues to bat at number five or six, since Binny too is a lower-order batsman.
More importantly, he bowls military medium, which could be an additional usage in these windy and bouncy conditions.
Yuvraj was the team management's first-option for this role, as seen from his straight comeback from injury in the third ODI versus South Africa at Centurion, at the expense of Ajinkya Rahane who batted at four in the second ODI at Durban.
Perhaps there is a hint in this to assume that the Mumbai batsman, who was in superb touch in Tests there, is a shoe-in to bat at number four tomorrow.
The pace department looks settled for India. Ishant Sharma and Mohammad Shami will look to carry on from where they left off in South Africa, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar getting another look-in. Otherwise there is always Ishwar Pandey and Varun Aaron to contend with.
It looks like India will play five bowlers, though spin is where the real competition is. R Ashwin needs to win back his Test spot from Ravindra Jadeja and while both are expected to feature in the Indian ODI eleven, this could shape up to be a personal duel between them.
For New Zealand too, this series is a good launch-pad to firm up their plans for the future. They have a good base going already, with new players a healthy mix of ballistic batsmen and good all-rounders coming through in the preceding West Indies series.
The key for them will be to put India under pressure early on in the series, putting the shorter grounds and windy conditions to good use.
While skipper Brendon McCullum hinted that they might look to play four fast bowlers on Sunday, the Kiwis? bowling coach Shane Bone was thinking in the longer term. Whilst hosting the World Cup next year, New Zealand will get to play a quarter-final and a semi-final at their home turf, should they make it that far ahead into the tournament.
"We might have to play India in the quarters, or the semis, next year. We too need to size them up and plan ahead," Bond said, ahead of the opening clash of the tour on Sunday.
New Zealand: Brendon McCullum (captain), Corey Anderson, Martin Guptill, Mitchell McClenaghan, Nathan McCullum, Kyle Mills, Adam Milne, James Neesham, Luke Ronchi (wicketkeeper), Jesse Ryder, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson.
India: MS Dhoni (captain and wicketkeeper), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu, Stuart Binny, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishwar Pandey, Varun Aaron, Amit Mishra.
Match starts 6.30 AM IST (LIVE on Sony SIX)