Let us be honest. New Zealand tried hard in the third ODI to prevent India from taking an unassailable 3-0 series’ lead. They had a plan in place – play carefully, even in a circumspect manner against the spinners, somehow not give away too many wickets, and then hope to make up the run-rate in the last 15 overs.
The problem for them was India’s pace attack, which has been on the money for some time now. Mohammed Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have provided initial breakthroughs throughout this series and they continued to attack with the new ball. New Zealand were 18-2, 51-2 (in 7.5 overs) and 26-2 within the first ten overs in each of the first three ODIs in this series. Their recovery thereafter was subject to how well they played the spinners, of course.
And the Black Caps succeeded to some extent. Ross Taylor’s 93 was the fulcrum around which their innings revolved, and for a change, India’s wrist spin twins picked up only two wickets for 90 runs in 17 overs. Never mind India’s easy walk to a seven-wicket victory, the hosts did manage to thwart the spin damage for the first time in seven days.
That India still didn’t lose control was thanks to Hardik Pandya’s intensity. On his comeback to international cricket, the all-rounder had one and only one focus – to leave an imprint on the game. His stunning catch at midwicket was surely the highlight, but his initial spell was more to write home about.
For a while now, the Indian team management has been harping about the vitality of Pandya. He bats aggressively, is a gun fielder and is handy with the ball. But, for India’s World Cup plans to succeed, that last aspect is most important. Pandya’s ten overs are crucial to Virat Kohli’s bowling formula – two pacers, two spinners, an all-rounder and a part-timer.
And he did make it work, providing Kohli with impeccable control in the middle overs, even as Taylor and Tom Latham fought hard to wrest the initiative. Later, it was too late to accelerate and they ended up losing more wickets than scoring runs. That Pandya was able to shut off all criticism and channel his energy towards performing on the field is India’s greatest positive from this one-sided series. Replicating this intensity from the Bay Oval will be Pandya’s challenge going forward, nonetheless.
It begins with the fourth ODI at Seddon Park itself. With the advantage of 3-0 and a series victory already under their belt, India will want to use these next two ODIs to firm up spots for the World Cup. While Shami has confirmed his spot for the English summer as the third pacer after Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, India will still want to take a fourth pacer. Khaleel Ahmed is a shoo-in for that spot, and it is time for him to get another go, after starting the Australian tour with a missed step. He will probably come in for Shami, who has had non-stop cricket for some time now.
In that light, with only seven ODIs remaining before the World Cup, India’s biggest problem – while conducting final trials for vacant spots – is to keep their primary players in rhythm. Ravindra Jadeja hasn’t played for ten days, and with this thought in mind, he could get a game too; either Yuzvendra Chahal or Kuldeep Yadav could be rested.
Perhaps this is the biggest opportunity for the likes of Ambati Rayudu and Dinesh Karthik. With that unbeaten partnership at Bay Oval, taking India home without breaking a sweat in MS Dhoni’s absence, they re-affirmed the team management’s faith. Now is the time to build further on that facet and take the next step, thus putting away any doubt still lingering over their World Cup spots.
All things considered, Rayudu and Karthik are in direct competition with KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant. The latter two are still in consideration, as chief selector MSK Prasad outlined. But Rahul is woefully out of form, and it is tough to see him get a chance in the ensuing T20I series. And Pant, well, he is in good touch as seen by the India A exploits where he scored 73 off 76 balls against England Lions in the 4th ODI. Even so, it is one thing to travel and join the squad, and completely another to break into the playing eleven, with Dhoni and Karthik already present.
Kohli’s absence is another boon for the duo. Rayudu will get to bat higher up, and face more deliveries. The same can be said of Karthik too. At the time of writing, no decision has been made about Dhoni’s availability, but during the optional training on Wednesday, he was seen sprinting without any bother.
It could mean a return for Dhoni to the playing eleven, lending the necessary experience in Kohli’s absence. If not, Shubman Gill could be in for a shock debut. Meanwhile, Rohit Sharma will lead the side in his 200th ODI.
From New Zealand’s point of view, the proverbial pride is at stake. With Kohli off on holiday, there can now be no excuse for the Black Caps to not pull things back in the remaining matches. Yes, the Indian openers are in fine form, but still, the middle order can be put under pressure if the hosts can etch out early wickets for a change.
Even so, their focus will be on the World Cup too, as they will try to experiment with a couple of spots. Jimmy Neesham is back after his injury hiatus and lends balance to the side, almost as much as Pandya does to India. Todd Astle is a leg-spin bowling all-rounder and it will be interesting how he gets along with Mitchell Santner. The Black Caps bat deep, and by bringing in Astle, they will be looking to extend their line-up further.
Seddon Park is a happy hunting ground for New Zealand, with four wins in five matches against India here. The Men in Blue have only won against the Black Caps at this venue in March 2009. Overall, India have only three wins in nine matches at this ground, the other two coming against Zimbabwe in the 1992 World Cup and against Ireland in the 2015 World Cup.