After the whitewash of the Black Caps in the Test series, most Indian fans were looking forward to a similarly dominant display from India in the ODIs. The impression was strengthened when India steamrolled the Kiwis in the first ODI at Dharmasala. It was easily forgotten that only 18 months ago, New Zealand had strode undefeated into the final of the World Cup. By levelling the series at Ranchi and forcing a decider, New Zealand have reminded everyone why they are such an ascendant ODI team.
If India are to avoid losing another ODI series at home, there are a few things that need to click in Saturday's ODI at Vishakhapatnam (besides Virat Kohli of course). Here's a list of them:
1. Runs at the top
India's makeshift opening combination has flattered to deceive in this series. After an opening stand of 49 in the first ODI chasing a low score, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane have put on 21, 13, and 19 runs in the next three ODIs. Rohit's highest score in the series has been a poor 15, though one would still bet on him to produce the kind of innings that will offset the effect his scores have had on his average (41.14).
Rahane, meanwhile, has been guilty of the most cardinal of sins a batsman can commit - that of getting out after getting set. While he has notched up a fifty, he will be the first to expect more of himself, especially considering that he is in the running for the job of a regular ODI opener.
"I think it is a matter of just one good innings and I believe that innings is not too far away," Rahane said prior to the series. A match-winning performance in a series-decider will go a long way in cementing his spot at the top of the order, irrespective of Shikhar Dhawan's availability.
2. New middle order should be able to handle pressure
One of the joys of sports is that it gives us a glimpse into the the athlete's process of self-discovery. In the case of MS Dhoni, a survivor of 282 ODIs, we are privy to his process of self re-discovery. While he has often taken upon himself the burden of finishing a match, his move up the order to number four is a message to the likes of Manish Pandey and Kedar Jadhav - It is your turn now to take up the role of a finisher.
Both Pandey and Jadhav have shown glimpses of their ability to play such a role in their short careers, but by Dhoni's own admission, expecting results overnight is neither realistic nor fair. "Unless they get an opportunity like this it will be very difficult because that's how you get experience. You can learn a lot by watching but ultimately when you feel the pressure... that's where you learn a lot," he said.
It makes perfect sense to invest time in these players by exposing them to such roles. Unfortunately, it also means that should both Dhoni and Kohli get out early, Pandey and Jadhav, and Hardik Pandya and Axar Patel, will have to take extra assignments on handling pressure. The results will not always be pretty. But that is the risk this team needs to take to unearth a new finisher.
3. Keep playing positively
If there is one lesson India can take from the visitors, it would be to keep playing positively, despite the situation. Positive, entertaining, and sometimes outrageous cricket had been a feature of the Black Caps, especially under Brendon McCullum. While Kane Williamson's style of leadership leans more towards astute than outrageous, it has them on the threshold of a first-ever series win in India. So he must be doing a few things right.
It is a valuable lesson for the newcomers in the Indian team. Dhoni said as much at the presentation ceremony after the fourth ODI. "It is important to not tell them to stop playing the shots; you don't want them to go into their shell," he said. "Once they have played 15-20 games, they will figure out what works for them."
While there is nothing like in-match education, there is a lot to be learnt from the opposition as well. And for India's new middle order, there is no dearth of role models in both dressing rooms: the explosiveness of Martin Guptill, the solid serenity of Tom Latham, the backward calculus of Kohli and the insouciant equanimity of Dhoni. From this repository, if the youngsters can find "what works for them" and weave it into their own brand of positive cricket, there is little that can stop India from earning a hard-fought series win against the World Cup finallists.