For the first time in the history of cricket, an Indian cricket team came away from Australia without losing a single series across all formats. A 1-1 draw in T20s, followed by 2-1 wins in the Test and ODI legs ensure that India, led by Kohli, continue their long tour in the region on a high. Next up are opponents not as weakened as Australia.
Kane Williamson’s New Zealand team is the perfect Test for India months before the crucial World Cup in England. The Kiwis have been one of the most improved teams in the last one year – and they somehow always managed to peak in time for an ICC tournament. They have adapted well after the retirement of Brendon McCullum, and have beaten teams like Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka convincingly over formats. Add to this India’s indifferent form in New Zealand over the years (it has always been tough, except in 2009), especially in the run-up to World Cups (remember 2002-03 and Sourav Ganguly’s doomed tour?) and this might just turn out to be the most important limited-overs leg in cricket right now.
Here are a few talking points, then, on the eve of the India v/s New Zealand ODI series – which consists of 5 matches to be played at Napier, Mount Maunganui, Hamilton and Wellington.
Head to Head:
India Won: 51
NZ Won: 44
India came away with a hard-fought 2-1 victory in the ODI series in Australia, and seem to think that their middle order is sorted. It is not. They started out with Ambati Rayadu at no. 4 and ended with MS Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav in the same position. They did well to chase down the total in the final two games, but there seems to be a “firepower” missing from the middle order. A Rishabh Pant, or a younger Yuvraj Singh. Right now it’s Jadhav and Dinesh Karthik playing unorthodox strokes, which might not always work on seaming pitches. Which is why the biggest news of this squad in New Zealand is the inclusion of young Shubman Gill. The right-handed phenom took the U-19 World Cup by storm last year, and has been playing Ranji attacks for fun. The management will hope to play Gill in an attacking position in New Zealand, if nothing to see if he is ready for the big stage. India need young blood in the batting line-up – something they don’t have right now. The jury is still out on MS Dhoni’s finishing skills despite his Man of the Series performance, and a backup in Gill and Pant will help India get their balance right after the suspension of Hardik Pandya.
Shikhar Dhawan is getting starts, and he will surely be on the flight to England, but India will hope he gets a big one this week. He didn’t have a great ODI series in Australia, but the smaller grounds in New Zealand might suit his attitude. In addition, Ambati Rayadu now has a hill to climb to secure his no. 4 spot, a position he was assured of only two weeks ago. Also, the spot of Ravindra Jadeja is up for grabs; he has done a good job in place of Pandya, but given the performance of Yuzvendra Chahal in Melbourne as well as Kuldeep Yadav before him, India will want to play the spin twins together. They should not be separated, even if it means dropping a Shami to accommodate both of them on pitches that support wrist-spinners. New Zealand wickets have lately been batting paradises, but the Indian batsmen have traditionally faced issues against the wily Kiwi bowlers in these conditions. Trent Boult is in the form of his life, as are the batsmen, led by none other than Ross Taylor and Williamson.
Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli are the two best ODI batsmen in cricket today. Rohit in the first innings, Kohli while chasing. Add to this the slow coming-into-form of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and the skills of Chahal, and India have probably the second best ODI team in cricket today after England. They will start as favourites in New Zealand, but they will know exactly how fast things can go wrong there. India’s main strength is chasing and timing it, especially when Kohli is at the crease. This will also be an important series for the middle order, and everyone is backing Dhoni to pull through.
This might just be the tonic India needs before they head home to face Australia again. For 5 matches, there might be no escape from the few weaknesses. Expect New Zealand to win 4-1 or 3-2, which is a good thing, because it will help India structure their team better for June. If India win, it means they have a solid team that can adapt better than previous Indian teams.