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India v New Zealand, 1st ODI, Dharamsala


It's a peculiar situation Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Co. find themselves in ahead of the first One-Day International against New Zealand at the HPCA Stadium in Dharamsala on Sunday (October 16).

India rolled out a 13-Test home season, and consequently is sitting pretty at the top of the International Cricket Council rankings in the longer format of the game. The roles are clearly defined, the team exudes an aura of confidence that stops short of arrogance; it's as if the side has stumbled upon a fool-proof theorem for winning.

Things are not as rosy in the ODIs though. A glance at the ICC ODI rankings would suggest there's no cause for alarm -- India is ranked fourth -- the defeats are getting more frequent. Since the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, India has lost three series out of five, against Bangladesh, South Africa and Australia. The two series wins have come against Zimbabwe.

The upcoming series against New Zealand seemed like a great opportunity to set the record straight, especially after the bruising it received after the Tests, but with several big names absent owing to rest, injury and illness, it may not be so straightforward for India.

Ajinkya Rahane may be asked to open the innings with neither KL Rahul, the likely first-choice opener, and Shikhar Dhawan, the back-up option, available. Dhoni has also confirmed that he would be batting up the order, but not as high as No. 4. Even in the previous series against Zimbabwe, the Indian captain wasn't keen to bat too high up the order in order to give the youngsters a go, but here we could see Dhoni return to a finishing role.

It's probably not an ideal situation, because sooner or later, and Indian cricket will hope it's the latter, he will walk off into the proverbial sunset and India will need to have zeroed in on a bonafide finisher by then. But he's also aware that the position is a demanding one, and may opt to play it safe if the team finds itself in early trouble.

Dhoni admitted that the time is ripe to throw the youngsters not necessarily into the deep end but not keep them in the kiddie pool either. "We have an opportunity to test other players and see the bench strength," said Dhoni on the eve of the match on Saturday. "We are just playing eight ODIs this season. So whatever plans we have we can check them in these matches.

"Unless you give them (bench players) a chance, it would be very difficult to predict how good they will be at this level because I feel the difference between our domestic level and international level is quite big. So I feel it's a good exposure for them."

The fringe players in question in this case are Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey, Mandeep Singh, Hardik Pandya and Dhawal Kulkarni. Most of them are household names thanks to the Indian Premier League and while that has given them an opportunity to rub shoulders with the best in the business and made them less likely to suffer stage fright in the international arena, it's also made them less unknown quantities in the eyes of the opposition.

Luke Ronchi said as much on Saturday, explaining that the days of going into a series and not knowing diddly squat about a player are a thing of the past. "We are actually quite lucky in a sense that we have got the IPL and those guys are big IPL players. We have guys that have played with them in the IPL. You actually know a lot more about them because of the IPL and it's on TV around the world.

"Manish Pandey has done well in Australia, we've seen some footage on him and we know what he can do in the IPL. These days you don't really go into a series not knowing anything about a player. We also have coaches in the IPL. You can get enough information and footage on players to help you get them out or hit them around the park a bit easier."

New Zealand is banking on its experience and the flair which has characterised its ODI cricket to see it through, respectful but not overawed by the Indian bench strength. Of course, India could still manage to win this series if the senior players in the squad are on song. But if India could have its way, it would probably prefer the young guns to make the transition from supporting role to starring in the days ahead.

Squads (from):

India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Manish Pandey, Jayant Yadav, Axar Patel, Jasprit Bumrah, Kedar Jadhav, Mandeep Singh, Amit Mishra, Dhawal Kulkarni, Umesh Yadav and Hardik Pandya.

New Zealand: Kane Williamson, Corey Anderson, Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Anton Devcich, Martin Guptill, Tom Latham, Matt Henry, James Neesham, Luke Ronchi, Mitchell Santner, Ish Sodhi, Ross Taylor, B-J Watling and Tim Southee.

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