Hyderabad: A reality check awaits Team India as it gears up to begin life without the famed batting duo of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman when they take on a lowly New Zealand in the first Test of the two-match series starting here from Thursday.
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Sachin Tendulkar is the only player left of the `Fabulous Five` brigade after Sourav Ganguly, followed by Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, and most recently, VVS Laxman bid adieu to international cricket.
Now the challenge for India is to overcome the transition phase in the upcoming home season, in which the team would play 10 Tests, 13 ODIs and three Twenty20 Internationals, apart from the ICC World T20 in Sri Lanka in September.
It is no secret that the mighty Australians are still struggling after the fading away of their cricketing greats. Thus, India`s young brigade would be keen to overcome this tough phase with the help of Tendulkar`s experience before their real test starts in 2013 when they take on the current No. 1 Test side, South Africa on their home turf.
Moreover, the Indian team is returning to Test action after a gap of seven months, which was preceded by two disastrous Test series.
After being drubbed 0-4 in England that stripped India off their No. 1 Test status, an identical rout followed in Australia.
The aftermath of the debacle was even more disturbing as Dravid and Laxman, the two important pillars of Indian cricket, retired ahead of the start of the new season.
Their absence would mean that India would be without the two prolific scorers, who had a total tally of 22,069 Test runs in 298 matches, almost after 16 years.
While Dravid quit in March, Laxman, who geared up for the season with rigorous training at NCA and with two centuries in local matches, surprised everybody by announcing his retirement with immediate effect, withdrawing himself from the Test squad against New Zealand just days before the start of the first match at his home ground here.
It highlighted communication loopholes in the team`s think-tank, and Laxman`s open admission that he could not reach his skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, only fuelled more speculation.
Without the local hero, the interest in tomorrow`s match is at an all time low and it remains to be seen how Dhoni`s men wriggle themselves out of this situation.
Having slipped to No. 5 in less than a year`s time in Test rankings, the youngsters would be keen bring the team back on track during the home stretch before next year`s South Africa tour.
With stunning performances over the last few years, Virat Kohli looks set to fill in the no. 3 void, but filling no. 5 and 6 slots still remains a challenge for the team, even as Suresh Raina, Cheteshwar Pujara and Subramaniam Badrinath are in contention.
Pujara, who has been included in the squad after a knee surgery, looks to make the grade, while Raina after a fine performance in the limited overs series in Sri Lanka may get the captain`s faith one more time to prove himself in the Test scheme of things.
The opening slot looks all set with the left-right combination of Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag, but youngster Ajinkya Rahane, who is yet to play a Test, may have to wait for his turn.
The absence of Dravid (a record 210 catches from 164 matches) and Laxman (135 from 134) would mean India would have to fill in the void in the slip position also. It was also evident during the net sessions of the team as special attention was given to slip catching practice.
World No. 8 New Zealand, however, are expected to give a perfect chance to India seniors to get over the England and Australia blues.
While Tendulkar is expected to play without pressure, having achieved his 100th international century mark, Sehwag, after failing in the seaming and bouncy overseas conditions, will look to plunder the weak Kiwi attack, which is without their star spinner Daniel Vettori.
In the bowling department, Zaheer Khan will spearhead the pace attack, while Ishant Sharma, who took only five wickets in four matches in Australia, is back after an ankle surgery and his match fitness would be closely monitored.
Meanwhile, Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium strip promises to offer something for the spinners, especially after it was criticised when it last hosted the same opponents in November 2010 that saw a drab draw with Harbhajan Singh slamming an unbeaten century.
The Test also saw Brendon McCullum notch a career best 225 in the second innings, while opener Tim McIntosh was the other centurion.
But this time around, the curator assured that the ball would turn from second day onwards. And that should inspire the Indian spin trio of Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha and Piyush Chawla.
With Harbhajan sidelined, Ashwin would look to cement his place in the Test side after making a splendid debut against the touring West Indies last season.
Often in and out of the side, Ojha would also look to fox the Kiwis with his left-arm orthodox.
It remains to be seen whether legspinner Chawla, whose selection after a poor first-class last season surprised many, gets a chance to prove himself once again.
But Indians will look to relish the home conditions and would be upbeat to take on the Black Caps, who have come here after demoralising back-to-back defeats against South Africa (0-1 at home) and the West Indies.
The Kiwis had performed well in patches in their last tour with two draws in Ahmedabad and Hyderabad before they went down in the three-match series with an innings and 198-run defeat in Nagpur.
McCullum`s career best was the highlight of the tour and it will inspire the New Zealanders as he is all set to be back at the top alongside Martin Guptill.
"Martin Guptill and Brendon will open the innings. Brendon batted well here on previous occasions and, hopefully, he will continue in the same vein in the upcoming Tests," Taylor had told media after arriving in India.
"India are always tough in their home conditions. We have to be careful about the reverse swing and the spinners. We have to learn quickly through the series," he had added.
The touring side, who would straightaway go into action without any warm-up game, also expressed confidence to adjust to the conditions with their players a regular in the IPL.
However, without veteran Vettori, their highest wicket-taker (14) in the last tour here, the visitors would have to reinvent their spin attack through offie Jeetan Patel and leggie Tarun Nethula.
In the pace department, Tim Southee, who was effective in similar conditions in West Indies where he managed to trouble Chris Gayle, would be a key to their success as he would look to do the same against the Indian batsmen.
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (Capt), Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar, Cheteshwar Pujara, Suresh Raina, Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Ajinkya Rahane, Subramaniam Badrinath and Piyush Chawla.
New Zealand: Ross Taylor (Capt), Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Daniel Flynn, James Franklin, Martin Guptill, Chris Martin, Brendon McCullum, Tarun Nethula, Jeetan Patel, Tim Southee, Kruger van Wyk, Neil Wagner, BJ Watling, Kane Williamson.
Match Starts at 9.30 AM IST.