KANPUR: Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev will be among the icons celebrating India’s 500th Test in Kanpur this week as Virat Kohli’s team begin their quest to regain the top spot in the world rankings against a dangerous New Zealand.
The match marks both the start of a three-Test series against the Black Caps and a packed programme of international cricket for India, who will also host England, Bangladesh and Australia later this season.
India are strong favourites after their recent 2-0 victory over the West Indies in a four-match away series, which saw Kohli lead from the front by scoring his first Test double century in Antigua.
But their success was tinged with disappointment as they managed to topple Australia at the top of the rankings, only to be leapfrogged by their arch-rivals Pakistan when rain wrecked their hopes of a clean sweep in the Caribbean.
India start the series just one point behind Pakistan, and they will be hopeful of returning to number one before Pakistan play three Tests against the West Indies in October and November.
Inspired by Kohli, India’s top order has been in fine form of late — with the newcomer Lokesh Rahul scoring three centuries in the last eight Tests.
But they can’t afford to be complacent after their stunning defeat by New Zealand at the start of the World Twenty20 in March.
Their last Test series with New Zealand ended in a 1-0 away defeat in 2014, a contest which saw the then Black Caps’ skipper Brendon McCullum score a triple century.
Although McCullum has since retired, his successor Kane Williamson is now established as one of the game’s finest batsmen and he has already found form in India, hitting a belligerent half-century in a warm-up last week.
Other former captains such as Sunil Gavaskar and Mohammad Azharuddin are expected to join Tendulkar and Dev at Kanpur’s Green Park as part of the festivities organised by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).
Dev, who skippered India to victory in the 1983 World Cup, warned that a New Zealand side packed with veterans of the Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 tournament should not be underestimated.
“India will have the home advantage but times have changed, teams and players are no longer alien to foreign conditions,” he told the NDTV network.
The legendary all-rounder, still the only player to have scored 4,000 runs and taken 400 wickets, said Test cricket had changed radically in the two decades since he retired, praising Kohli for his attacking batsmanship.
“The mindset of the young cricketer is different,” said Dev. “Aggression wasn’t part of Indian team in the 80s, but today I think, God these boys have changed.”
The series also marks Anil Kumble’s first home assignment as coach and he is expected to pack the Indian bowling line-up with three spinners, including Ravichandran Ashwin who took 17 wickets in the Caribbean.
The hosts will also be bolstered by the return on home soil of medium-pacer Mohammed Shami, who took 11 wickets in the West Indies after a long lay-off.
Williamson, who has so far skippered New Zealand in just four Tests, said he was excited by taking on such a tough assignment in the early days of his captaincy.
“We have a great bunch of guys and we are enjoying our cricket. We have to keep improving and that’s my focus as a captain,” he said.
On the bowling front, all eyes will be on Indian-born New Zealand leg-spinner Ish Sodhi.
Fast bowler Trent Boult can expect a heavy workload after the visitors lost Tim Southee to an ankle injury just before the start of the series.
New Zealand, who have never won a series in India, were whitewashed by the hosts in the two-match Test series in 2012.
India: Virat Kohli (captain), Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Lokesh Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha (wicketkeeper), Ravichandran Ashwin, Amit Mishra, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar
New Zealand: Kane Williamson (captain), Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Mark Craig, Martin Guptill, Tom Latham, BJ Watling (wicketkeeper), Henry Nicholls, Luke Ronchi, Mitchell Santner, Ish Sodhi, Matt Henry, Ross Taylor, Neil Wagner -AFP