Mahendra Singh Dhoni's homecoming didn't quite go to plan for the Indian skipper, as his Indian cricket team went down by 19 runs in the fourth ODI in Ranchi on Wednesday night. The visiting New Zealanders have dragged the series into a fifth and final ODI, and also ensured Dhoni's wait for a big score at his home ground would have to continue.
Thousands of ardent Dhoni fans turned up at the Jharkhand State Cricket Association (JSCA) ground on Tuesday, hoping to watch another batting masterclass from the skipper, who had promoted himself to No 4 in the batting order in the previous match and produced a scintillating knock.
But instead, the Indians ended up with fresh additions to their list of mistakes committed in the ongoing ODI series, and will have an even harder time denying accusations of being over-dependent on Virat Kohli and his batting heroics.
Black Caps skipper Kane Williamson finally found out that coins used on this tour are not cursed, winning his first toss. But he opted to bat first, a move which might have baffled most, and induced a barrage of sarcastic reactions, but one that was taken with a good understanding of the conditions.
Perhaps for the first time this series, the visitors' top-order looked in complete control of proceedings; a Martin Guptill charge helped them amass 80 runs at the end of the first powerplay, and took them to 184 for two after 35 overs. The Kiwis were eyeing a big score, but a collapse didn't let them get more than 260.
Much like Rohit Sharma in the Test series, Guptill has also finally rediscovered his old touch after months of frustrating his teammates and fans. For once, 'Guppy' tackled the initial seam movement and did not fall prey to poor shot selection. Middling most of his shots with a touch of command, the right-handed opener showed why he is a feared entity, at least when opening the batting in limited-overs cricket is concerned, bringing up his 31st half-century in ODIs.
New Zealand's middle-order woes, however, are still something a matter of concern for them heading into the fifth ODI. While Ross Taylor was unlucky to have suffered a run-out on 35, thanks mainly to Dhoni's reflexes and innovating keeping tactics, the likes of BJ Watling (drafted into the side in place of the struggling Luke Ronchi), Jimmy Neesham and Anton Devcich were unable to carry the momentum forward after their skipper's dismissal.
A total of 260 looked just about enough, though they would have rued having missed out on the first 300-plus score in this series. Considering the pitch was likely to deteriorate in the second innings, it even seemed adequate. However, the team management still has a woefully out of form middle-order to worry about, heading to Vizag, and will desperately look for a solution if they are to emerge on top in this series.
If New Zealand have middle-order issues, then India are yet to get an answer to their opening woes. Ajinkya Rahane answered questions about his abilities at the top of the order with a well-paced 57 off 70 balls, but Rohit Sharma failed yet again. Though it was a peach from Tim Southee that got the Mumbai batsman's wicket, the fact that he has failed to repay the team's faith in him for the fourth ODI in a row raises a lot of questions. However, he still enjoys a lot of support, and the prospects of him losing his spot in the playing XI are as bright as Anurag Thakur accepting Lodha Committee's recommendations with a smile on his face.
However, none of that will matter if the hosts can't shake off the perception that they are incapable of chasing down targets if Kohli doesn't fire. This has been the Delhi batsman's most productive and dominant year thus far, and he has burnished his reputation of being the best chaser of targets in world cricket.
This brilliance of Kohli, however, makes him a one-point target for opposition bowlers, and his dismissal is often viewed as half the battle being won when teams play India. That was also the case on Wednesday, when he was caught behind off a short, wide delivery from Ish Sodhi five runs short of a half-century. It wasn't the best of balls to get dismissed against, but Sodhi had created enough pressure on the young batting genius to make him reach out for a cut, and pay a rather heavy price for it.
Kohli's dismissal brought about a loud cheer at the JSCA, with Dhoni walking out to bat. The skipper faced 31 deliveries with a calm demeanour, but was struggling to rotate the strike and was also missing out on the big shots, before finally having his leg-stump knocked over by Jimmy Neesham. Ranchi's favourite son disappointed the locals yet again, and perhaps for the final time.
The lower-order did put up a fight and nearly took the game to the last over, but there is only so much that can be expected of an inexperienced lower order batting line-up. Axar Patel (38) and Dhawal Kulkarni (25 not-out) were instrumental in taking their side within striking distance of the Black Caps' total, but poor shot selection cost the likes of Pandey and Jadhav a chance to rebuild the innings.
Dhoni, however, was quick to rush to their defence after the game, adding that a reshuffle in the middle-order would only hamper their confidence. "The Nos 5 and 6 are quite new, they will learn their own way. Some will play big shots, some will take it deep. Cricket has changed, people like to play big shots. But it's important not to tell them to stop playing their shots; you don't want them to go into their shells. They played their shots when the ball was in their area. They will learn after they have played 15-20 games," Dhoni was quoted as saying after the match.
Though the hosts would have liked to wrap up the series early, it's set up nicely for an exciting showdown at Vishakhapatnam on Saturday. New Zealand will hope to get their middle-order issues rectified, while continuing to get quality performaces from their top three and the bowling unit. For India, they'll probably be hoping Kohli would bounce back from this rare failure.
However, just in case he doesn't, they better keep an alternate plan ready though.