India like to chase in ODI cricket — this is no secret. So, when Virat Kohli won the toss and opted to bat, it indicated a simple factor — the Bay Oval pitch on Saturday was too good to let go of the opportunity to put up a score.
Even so, Kane Williamson talked about 'bowling first anyway' on losing the toss. It made for some wonderment — how much mental damage did the loss in Napier do? It was quite apparent that the Black Caps wanted to avoid going up against Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal first thing again. Only, they ran into Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma this time.
India's top-order is one of the two best in ODI cricket at the moment; England's being the other one. Rohit and Dhawan have forged a partnership that runs on 'automatic' mode (in their own words) at present. 14 hundred-plus stands, ahead of Sachin Tendulkar-Virender Sehwag, showcase their importance at the top of India's batting order. Add Kohli's prowess to it, and it becomes obvious why the team is so heavily dependent on this trio.
The Sydney ODI was a rare occasion when two of these three failed to get going. Mostly, two of them do score big. And here is a small pointer — India have scored 12,832 runs in 51 ODIs since the 2017 Champions Trophy. Rohit (2606), Dhawan (2041) and Kohli (2718) have combined for 7365 of those runs — that's a staggering 57.39 per cent of India's runs in ODI cricket in the last 20 months.
The problem with this top-order dependency is that at times the Indian middle-order becomes unstuck. It was seen in three run-chases in Australia - the acceleration didn't come quick enough. It was also seen in the second ODI on Saturday when they were batting first - India somehow missed their acceleration point again. This is the one weakness of this batting line-up, considering that they won't be making any more changes for the third ODI on Monday.
Ambati Rayudu scoring runs was a big gain for India on Saturday. Batting with Kohli, he eased through the first half of his innings. However, it is tough to judge his 49-ball 47-run knock just yet. While batting with Kohli, the first half of his knock came at a strike-rate of 114.81. After the skipper got out, Rayudu ought to have taken responsibility of leading the acceleration. Yet, the second half of his innings — batting with MS Dhoni — came at a strike-rate of only 72.72, with one boundary.
Cynics will argue that Dhoni takes his own sweet time to get going. But since he hit a boundary off the sixth ball of his 33-ball 48 unbeaten knock, Dhoni's strike-rate didn't dip below 110. Kedar Jadhav's cameo helped push things along. Even so, it is worrying for India that they finished with a 320-plus score when they looked good enough to get 350-plus. It is an area Kohli has underlined for the last two series, and one that the team management will be keen to solve going into the home series against Australia as well as the 2019 World Cup.
So, how do you solve this aspect in the current scenario? Hardik Pandya has joined the Indian squad ahead of the third ODI. And there is no reason why he won't be picked in place of Vijay Shankar on Monday. The latter was only keeping Pandya's spot warm, and there is no way the Indian team management would play two seam-bowling all-rounders at the same time.
In the past, India have used Pandya up the order whenever they have wanted to accelerate the scoring. With Kohli underlining this pressing need, it won't be a surprise if Pandya is used as a floater, giving new shape to India's batting strategy going ahead irrespective of whether they are batting first or second.
For New Zealand though, it will matter what they do — bat first or second. When the double-header happened at Mount Maunganui against Sri Lanka earlier in January, the same pitch was used for the second game as well, and it won't be a surprise to see the same being repeated on Monday. Using the same pitch for this third ODI would mean that spin will again play a prominent role, and to the Black Caps' ill luck, Chahal-Yadav will have a major say too.
Coach Gary Stead underlined a lack of partnerships as the reason why New Zealand batsmen haven't been able to come to terms with the two wrist spinners. Credit for this goes to the Indian bowling attack — the pacers have provided initial breakthroughs and their middle order has found it tough to contend with spin thereafter. In parts, shot selection hasn't helped either — Colin Munro had no business playing that reverse to Chahal, when he had Jadhav-Shankar to attack.
At this juncture, the bottom-line ahead of this third game is a simple one. New Zealand need massive improvement in their batting department if they are to stand any chance of a series' defeat already. It doesn't matter what they do after winning the toss, or whether they bat first or second after losing it. They need to find a way to stop this downward curve; otherwise all positives from that win against Sri Lanka will be lost within this month.
Alternately, from an Indian perspective, this will be Kohli's last game on this long tour. Win, and they will happily be able to experiment going forward, without missing their skipper too much.
India: Virat Kohli (captain), Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik, Vijay Shankar, Shubman Gill, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Siraj, Khaleel Ahmed, Ravindra Jadeja, Hardik Pandya.
New Zealand: Kane Williamson (captain), Ross Taylor, Tom Latham, Martin Guptill, Colin de Grandhomme, Trent Boult, Henry Nicholls, Doug Bracewell, Lockie Ferguson, Matt Henry, Colin Munro, Ish Sodhi, Micthell Santner, Tim Southee.