Following the historic triumph in Australia, the Indian cricket team has reached New Zealand for an exclusive white-ball tour. Virat Kohli’s men will play five ODIs and three T20Is during this trip and perhaps, before the World Cup this is going to be their most challenging assignment as well as an ideal platform to plug the loopholes in the side.

Ideally, strengthening the pace bowling department should be the first and foremost objective for the team management during this short tour of New Zealand, which starts with the ODIs series at Napier on January 23. Following the workload of four-Test series in Australia, the selectors have rested premier pacer Jasprit Bumrah from the back-to-back limited-overs tours in the Down Under. Considering that India desperately seek proper back-up options for Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the World Cup scheme of things, the move seems very sensible.

However, during the three-match ODI series in Australia, barring Mohammed Shami, the bench-strength in the pace department seemed to have lacked the venom. The Bhuvi-Shami combination picked up a total of 13 wickets in those three outings whereas the rest of the fast bowlers had nothing to show. And the think-tank gave pacers like Mohammed Siraj and Khaleel Ahmed one game each to make a mark.

In fact, disappointed with their performance (55 runs in 8 overs for Khaeel at SCh and 76 runs in 10 overs for Siraj at Adelaide) the management was forced to pick Vijay Shankar, an all-rounder, as a third fast bowling option in the series-decider at the MCG.

Now, in New Zealand, against a much stronger batting line-up, these young pacers will be under the pump once again. Also, let’s not forget that the ground over there will be much smaller in dimension compared to Australia. Hence, containing the likes of Kane Williamson, Martin Guptill, Ross Taylor, Colin Munro, Henry Nicholls on those flat wickets, will be a heck of a screen Test for these relatively inexperienced fast bowlers.

Furthermore, the conditions in New Zealand will be quite similar to what India can expect in New Zealand in June-July. With two new balls, there will be some early swing, which Bhuvi and Shami can extract. Also, with the links of Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Ravindra Jadeja around India have a very versatile spin attack. So, it is a no-brainer that the Blackcaps will attack India’s third seamer, which clearly is their weak link.

At this point, for the likes of Siraj and Khaleel as well as all-rounder Shankar, the challenge seems quite stiff. Even, despite the impressive outing in Australia, Shami’s place in the World Cup squad is not secure yet. So, his performance will be under the scanner as well. Going further, during the T20I-leg of the tour, Siddarth Kaul too will get his chance to impress the selectors. Any significant show even in the shortest format can even bring him into the equation as well.

Remember, India are likely to have the services of Hardik Pandya during the World Cup and in their squad they will mostly add two more mainstream pacers in the mix alongside the first-choice Bhuvi-Bumrah pair. And while picking the final 15 for that pinnacle event of the cricketing world, the performances of the back-up pacers in New Zealand will certainly be one of the deciding factors for the selectors.

So, it is time for Siraj and Co. to buckle up. There are a few World Cup spots up for grabs.

(Cover Photograph AP)