Thiruvananthapuram: Moments after the Indian cricket team landed for the T20I series decider, team coach Ravi Shastri uploaded a video of fans welcoming the Virat Kohli-led team on Twitter at midnight. For the players, who are pursued by fans at every nook and corner of the country, the reception might not have been a startling experience. But take a few details into account and you would be able to understand the reasons behind the unparalleled love of the fans, who had traveled to the airport just to catch a glimpse of their favourite cricketers.
— Ravi Shastri (@RaviShastriOfc) November 6, 2017
It's been about three decades, 29 years to be precise, since an Indian team set foot in Kerala capital to play a cricket match. Such was the might of West Indies back then that they steamrolled Shastri's men at the University Stadium by nine wickets and 13 balls to spare. An international match has since eluded Thiruvananthapuram.
Visit Mumbai, Kolkata or Bengaluru on matchdays and you would wonder whether the opportunity to watch the best in the business in flesh is being taken for granted. The excitement has dropped as fixtures have become a routine. Not in smaller cities though. That's the beauty of new or rare centres hosting international matches; it becomes more than just a game. The city goes crazy. Be it Indore or Guwahati, the pattern is the same. Fans from all over the state travel to the city. Thiruvananthapuram is expected to garner a similar response as the tickets have already been sold out. To avoid hiccups, the Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) has introduced ‘Spacy T20 Trivandrum’, an application to facilitate smooth parking.
The only likely spanner amidst the excitement will be the weather. It has been pouring persistently over the last few days, and rains are expected to interrupt the match. However, unlike Hyderabad's Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium, that hosted the abandoned T20I series decider between India and Australia, the newly-built Greenfield International Stadium has better drainage facilities and the potential to restart the game quickly even after a rain delay.
"The super soppers and other facilities are all there and even if it rains during the match time, in 10 minutes after the rain stops, the match will be able to resume," KCA's secretary Jayesh George said ahead of the encounter.
New Zealand were scrappy in first match, thanks to some courteous fielding and dropped catches. But that performance was so unlike them that the 40-run loss in Rajkot didn't come as a surprise. They not only pulled up their socks while fielding but also posted a challenging total, batting first. Had it not been for India's magnificent death bowling, they could have reached 210 instead of 196.
But in the end 197 proved to be too much for the hosts, whose top-order failed to provide a solid foundation, which is very important in such chases. Trent Boult returned to top form by sending back both the openers in his first over. While Shreyas Iyer began on a positive note and displayed all signs of playing a blinder, he lost his touch as the innings progressed and had to literally slog his way out of trouble, only to perish for 23. When he departed, the required run rate had already soared past 11. What worsened the situation was the number of dot balls MS Dhoni consumed. It became practically impossible for Kohli alone to pull India out of trouble and after his wicket the question was more about when, and not if, the Kiwis would win.
Taking the Rajkot game into perspective, the Indian team management have a few decisions to make. It is no secret that Dhoni now needs few balls to get set before teeing off. But with Kohli at three and Iyer at four or vice versa, it will be interesting to see what the think-tank decides. Even Hardik Pandya needs to regain his form after two dispiriting outings against leg-spinner Ish Sodhi.
The bowling department sans debutant Mohammed Siraj did a decent job when Colin Munro was wreaking havoc. Even Axar Patel went for runs, but his Delhi performance holds him in good stead. Now the question arises: Is it time to get Kuldeep Yadav back in the XI? If the most recent match at the Greenfield International Stadium - a Ranji Trophy clash between Kerala and Jharkhand - is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding yes. Spinners made merry and scalped more than 75 percent of the 31 wickets that fell. A third spinner may come in handy for skipper Kohli.
That aspect would also help New Zealand as Sodhi and Mitchell Santner have done no wrong in the T20I series. Sodhi, who was not deemed good enough to be in the original squad, has come in as a replacement and performed exceptionally well. Santner has been his usual self and stuck to his tight lines and varied his lengths excellently.
A cause of concern for Kane Williamson could be Glenn Phillips' wicketkeeping. The role of a wicketkeeper is often marginalised in the shortest format, but those half chances are what count the most in close matches. Phillips was brought into the squad primarily for his destructive batting skills but his indifferent show behind the stumps might force the Kiwis to bring Tom Latham back into the side. The visitors' batting, with Munro slamming the second ton of his T20I career, seems to be in a positive frame of mind.
New Zealand's tour of India has been refreshingly competitive as compared to the hosts' previous few assignments against Australia, Sri Lanka and Windies. The highlight of the One-Day Internationals (ODI)series was the decider in Kanpur, where Jasprit Bumrah stole the limelight as he executed brilliant control in the slog overs. With different facets favouring either side, it is difficult to pick a favourite, but one thing is certain: if the Thiruvananthapuram T20I turns out be a thriller like the Kanpur ODI, the fans would have their money's worth.
India probable XI: Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, MS Dhoni, Hardik Pandya, Axar Patel, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah
New Zealand probable XI: Martin Guptill, Colin Munro, Kane Williamson, Glenn Phillips/ Tom Latham, Tom Bruce, Colin de Grandhomme, Adam Milne, Trent Boult, Ish Sodhi, Mitchell Santner, Henry Nicholls