File photo of India batsmen Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli at a training session. (AFP)
Team India will be flagged off on the road to 2015 World Cup on Sunday with the first ODI on its tour of New Zealand that will give MS Dhoni and BCCI selectors an insight into the make-up of the side for the quadrennial event.
Napier will host the opening game of the five-match ODI series, during the course of which India's No. 1 rank will also be on the line. And considering this is the second consecutive overseas tour for the Men in Blue, the team should be better prepared than it looked in South Africa.
Not that India played badly in South Africa, but while losing the ODI and Test series to a much superior Proteas side was taken in the stride, it won't be so against the 8th-ranked New Zealand.
In simple terms, India are expected to beat New Zealand, maybe not an easy series win, but win nonetheless. The learning curve of a team in transition shows an upward trend only when it develops a winning habit. And India will need to build towards that if they were to successfully defend their title in 2015.
The gone year was pretty fruitful for India in ODIs, where the team pocketed six trophies - including the ICC Champions Trophy in England. The team won everything barring the ODI series against Pakistan at home.
But the start to 2014 hasn't been ideal. A 2-0 loss in the three-ODI series in South Africa exposed a few chinks and the armour needs to be repaired before the first ODI in New Zealand on Sunday.
The opening combination of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, which became the toast of a winning team in 2013, didn't do much of note in South Africa. But there's no need for panic, but to be a little cautious and respectful towards the conditions.
It was due to big opening stands that India set and chased big targets, and if Dhawan and Rohit can acclimatize and provide India good starts, New Zealand may find it difficult to contain India on their small grounds.
The middle order will be without Yuvraj Singh, which leaves the No. 4 spot up for grabs. Dhoni tried Suresh Raina there but without success. Yuvraj was pushed back up, but he failed to regain form. Ajinkya Rahane was sent in at No. 4 in the Durban ODI and then played exceptionally in the Test series, which are reasons enough to see him walking in at two-down.
That will push Raina, who like Yuvraj is on tenterhooks with just 207 runs in 9 innings since last October, back down the order as a finisher.
Also travelling with the ODI squad are Ambati Rayudu and Stuart Binny - the former an out-and-out middle-order batsman and the latter a utility player who can bat and bowl seam up, a skill India have failed to spot in anybody since Kapil Dev left. They may not be considered for the opening game but will be close on Raina's heels should the CSK man's bat fails to produce runs.
The bowling line-up is more or less settled with Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, followed by offspinner R Ashwin and left-armer Ravindra Jadeja. Also in the squad are comeback man Varun Aaron and first-timer Ishwar Pandey, who will keep the competition going among fast bowlers.
New Zealand too have an eye on the World Cup and irrespective of their lowly 8th rank are a threat in home conditions, expected to better exploit those on shorter grounds.
The Kiwis played out a 2-2 series draw with West Indies before welcoming India. They will want to go a step further this time by winning the series against India, and their weapon of choice is pace.
"It will be quite nice to unleash a bit of pace in this opening game and try and be aggressive and hostile as we can with the ball in hand," skipper Brendon McCullum said. NZ have named five fast bowlers in their squad - Mitchell McClenaghan, Tim Southee, Kyle Mills, Adam Milne and James Neesham.
NZ's new pace sensation Adam Milne, who troubled the Caribbean batsmen with his raw pace, is expected to be in the playing eleven.
Pitch Curator Phil Stoyanoff has promised a hard and bouncy track but one that will have a lot of runs in it. If the bowlers err in line, they may go for plenty, especially on the short side boundaries.
If India fail to win the series, their No. 1 rank will go either to Australia on England. A series win for New Zealand will push them up a spot to 7th.
New Zealand: 1 Martin Guptill, 2 Jesse Ryder, 3 Kane Williamson, 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Brendon McCullum (capt), 6 Corey Anderson, 7 Luke Ronchi (wk), 8 Nathan McCullum, 9 Kyle Mills/Adam Milne, 10 Tim Southee, 11 Mitchell McClenaghan
India: 1 Shikhar Dhawan, 2 Rohit Sharma, 3 Virat Kohli, 4 Ajinkya Rahane, 5 Suresh Raina, 6 MS Dhoni (capt/wk), 7 Ravindra Jadeja, 8 R Ashwin, 9 Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 10, Ishant Sharma, 11 Mohammad Shami