India were ambushed on Sunday.
Tellingly, the visitors looked better prepared, extremely focused and exceedingly adept at countering every threat. The verdict and the manner in which New Zealand arrived at it, laid threadbare India’s shoddy preparation for the match and indeed series.
Earlier, skipper Virat Kohli had expressed fears of key players’ burnout ahead of the tough South Africa series later this year. While New Zealand were well rested since the Champions Trophy in England, Kohli's team had played 15 ODIs, four T20s and Tests in the same period. These facts apart, what was evident in Mumbai was not any burnout but rather pathetic application and crappy homework leading to the series.
On the other hand, doff your hat to the Kiwis. Their preparation looked so thorough that the six-wicket win on Sunday was a brilliant triumph of elaborate planning.
Nothing brought this out better than New Zealand’s fantastic utilisation of their month-long ‘A’ team tour of India that concluded on 15 October. They used the tour to get some of their players acclimatised to Indian conditions. Colin Munro, Henry Nicholls, Glenn Phillips, Todd Astle, George Worker and Matt Henry played in the series against India 'A' and gained invaluable exposure to the challenges Indian pitches, weather conditions, food and opposition poses to visiting teams.
Pointedly, the New Zealand ‘A’ team manager was national selector and former Kiwi medium-pacer Gavin Larsen. His inputs and supervision would have come in handy to prepare the players for the series. Thus, when the left-handed Munro was asked to open the innings against India in the first ODI, it was a decision made after a lot of thought and with a definite purpose in mind.
"We need a healthy strike-rate at the top," said coach Mike Hesson before the series. The Kiwis believed that the Martin Guptill-Tom Latham opening combination could not provide that and decided to split the pair.
Munro who had adapted well to Indian pitches and conditions during the ‘A’ team tour was chosen to open as he had the reputation of being "a boundary hitter". The coach said that they had tried him out as an opener in the T20 format and it had worked very well. Since then they’ve used him in that role in limited overs matches.
How well it paid off in Mumbai! He struck three boundaries and one six when just two fielders were permitted outside the 30-yard circle and ensured that the Kiwis had a healthy run-rate at the start of the innings. This also allowed the other opener, Guptill to play himself in.
The Kiwis were also very keen on having a left-right combination batting together whenever possible. The move to have Latham batting at No 5 was part of that strategy. Besides, Latham — who was moved down from opening the batting — is also known to be a splendid player of spin bowling. The manner in which the southpaw handled the wrist spinners proved that. His footwork was sure and convincing. He also used the sweep shots with a deft touch. There were times when he paddle-swept the spinners. At other times he swept hard in front of square. Later in his innings, he also brought into play reverse sweeps to completely upset the bowlers.
His partner in the double century match-winning partnership was Ross Taylor, an old India hand. He has played years of IPL cricket and was well aware of subcontinental conditions.
The right-handed Taylor was not always comfortable against the spinners. But he knew what had to be done in taking the team towards victory and revelled in doing just that.
Impressively the Kiwis picked the right bowlers to harry the Indian stroke-players. Rohit Sharma, who seems to have an issue with left arm pace bowlers of late, from Pakistani Mohammed Amir to Australian Jason Beherendorff to Trent Boult, perished all too soon to the Kiwi. He was bowled by the left-hander’s delivery that came back into him.
Boult and the experienced Tim Southee got good bounce early on when operating with the new ball. This extra bounce accounted for the other opener Shikhar Dhawan. After that only Kohli looked the part as India huffed and puffed to 280. But it was never going to be enough against a strong and determined batting line-up.
Unlike the Australian team that lacked depth and character in the middle order, this Kiwi lineup looks to be something else altogether. The fact that they chased down such a huge total without a worthwhile contribution from their best batsman (Kane Williamson) tells its own story.
They knew what to expect from each of the Indian bowlers and their approach spoke volumes of the preparation they had put in ahead of this series.
Following the six-wicket defeat India are certainly up against it. Of course they can still pull it off if their batsmen show greater commitment and application. But time is running out, especially in a best-of-three series when well-begun is half the battle.
India can’t say they’ve begun well. So they are always going to play catch-up. They must win the next match to keep the series alive and hence will be under tremendous pressure.
By now, Ravi Shastri, Kohli and others know they have to bring their A game into batting, bowling and fielding to thwart these Kiwis. Make no mistake, the next match will be a severe test of this Indian team’s character.