While India were busy registering their first-ever wins in Tests and ODIs on Australian soil, New Zealand were decimating an already weakened Sri Lankan side. In a manner of speaking, both the Men in Blue and the Black Caps have been building momentum towards this five-match clash with the first ODI starting on Wednesday.
Do a little math. New Zealand host Bangladesh after this. When India reach home, they will play Australia (again), a situation very different from what they will encounter in the English summer. For all sense and purpose, considering the strength of opposition and conditions, this is the final examination ahead of the 2019 ODI World Cup for these two sides.
It only helps that both are rank contenders when that big tournament gets underway on 30 May. The other common denominator between the two sides is ‘balance’, or the quest for it. On Tuesday, Kane Williamson spoke about it. Virat Kohli mentioned it too. Heading into the first ODI, as the series kicks into high gear and when the two playing elevens are announced, both captains will be searching for that all-important word to take effect.
In terms of batting and bowling as individual facets of this game, the weighing scales are firmly holding equal. The Kiwis, like India, are a top-heavy side. Against Sri Lanka, Martin Guptill, Colin Munro, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, were all amongst runs at different times during the three ODIs. Against Australia, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma were key, while Shikhar Dhawan showed in Adelaide that he is slowly warming up after a six-week break. The shorter boundaries in this country will only help him further.
Beyond the top-order, there is a mismatch in terms of firepower – New Zealand have the big-hitting Henry Nicholls, Collin De Grandhomme, Doug Bracewell and Tom Latham, who is returning to the side this series. It was Latham’s stunning hundred that had beaten India in Mumbai back in 2017, one of the rare occasions when their wrist-spin combination of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav failed to work. He could very well get promotion this time too.
India’s middle-order, meanwhile, looks as if in a struggle. Part of the reason is MS Dhoni’s sluggish starts, whether batting at number four or five. With three half-centuries in three matches against Australia, it is easy to assume that he will bat in a more free-flowing way. Along with Dhawan, the shorter boundaries in New Zealand should help him too – when the singles/doubles aren’t coming easily, he can simply take the aerial route and get more runs efficiently, for Dhoni still retains his hitting prowess.
Beyond that, India will have the lower-order combination of Kedar Jadhav, Vijay Shankar and Dinesh Karthik, with Ravindra Jadeja to boost them up at number eight. In short, Kohli is looking to field the same playing eleven that did the job for him at the MCG.
While it is not the ideal batting line-up, with Dhoni batting higher up than where the skipper prefers him to (read number four), it works, somehow. At the same time, it is also Kohli’s preferred bowling combination – two pacers, two spinners, two all-rounders and a part-timer to complete the 50-over quota.
Even so, Kohli had a warning for his bowling attack that is still coming to grips with the absence of Hardik Pandya. High scores are the norm in New Zealand, with an in-form hosts’ batting line-up and shorter boundaries. Additionally, thanks to Sri Lanka’s developing attack, the Black Caps had smacked 371-7, 319-7 and 364-4 in their three ODIs recently.
Thus, it will be a mental challenge for India’s bowlers to contend with a batting line-up that goes deep and is not averse to hitting the ball hard. It is in complete contrast to the Australian line-up, which was tentative and struggling to find form and rhythm whilst missing their star power in David Warner and Steve Smith. The Black Caps will come out all guns blazing and test the experience of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Chahal, Yadav and Jadeja, as well as the patience of Shankar and Jadhav. Whoever blinks first will comprise half of the battle in this series.
In that light, Kohli expressed satisfaction that his batting line-up is experienced enough to deal with New Zealand’s differently challenging conditions. Speaking at the pre-match press conference, he was referring to the Indian tour here in 2014, when the Men in Blue lost the five-ODI series 3-2. That trip had begun in Napier as well, as India lost, chasing a 293-run target. It was the rarest of occasions wherein Kohli’s hundred in a chase went in vain.
Next to his 123 that day, India’s best was Dhoni’s 40 (at number six) and Dhawan’s 32 runs. This simple fact underlines two points – India’s middle-order mess isn’t something new. More importantly, they were as dependent on their top-order five years ago as they are today. The only difference perhaps is in the experience – and reputation – the opening pairing of Sharma-Dhawan has gained since then.
The duo, backed by Kohli’s genius at number three, return here as part of arguably the strongest top-order in white-ball cricket in the world today. They will face Trent Boult, two quickies in Matt Henry and Lockie Ferguson, and possibly a spin combination of Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi. Can the Indian batting line-up survive an initial onslaught with its top-order lost for next to nothing? This is the other and more pivotal question of this series, one which has plagued team India for some time now.
India's record in Napier isn't impressive, they have won just two and lost four out of six ODIs they've played here. This time, they need a change in fortunes keeping the focus on the World Cup and get off to a positive start to carry on momentum from Australia. International cricket returns to McLean Park for the first time since 2017 and it remains to be seen if the Men in Blue have sorted problems repeatedly plaguing their World Cup preparation.