There is little doubt that New Zealand have been the best among the teams to visit the subcontinent in the past two tours including the ongoing one. They have come better prepared than all other teams since last year and that is the reason they have always been able to challenge the might of a strong Indian outfit on their home turf. However, their competitiveness has been limited to just challenging the hosts. They have never been able to dominate India completely despite having their moments both last year and this time. Among the main reasons that are responsible for their failure to perform well in crunch matches against the hosts, the most important has been the poor run of the top order.
The top three Kiwi batsmen — Martin Guptill, Colin Munro and Kane Williamson — have accounted for only 90 runs collectively in the two matches which is just 17.5 percent of the total runs New Zealand have scored so far in the series. In addition to that, these runs have also come at a poor strike rate of 68.70 which is not acceptable by any means from top order batsmen in international cricket at present.
While Guptill and Munro got off to starts in the previous ODI at Mumbai with scores of 32 and 28 respectively, skipper Williamson has looked completely off-colour with single digit scores of 6 and 3 to his name in the two matches so far.
Some good bowling from their key paceman Trent Boult and a couple of superb innings from their middle-order batsmen Ross Taylor and Tom Latham did help the visitors to claim victory over a superior Indian side in the previous ODI. However, the failure of the top three completely went unnoticed in that match.
But it came to the fore once again in Pune when the top order failed again and the middle order could not produce substantial contributions to take them to a winning total after batting first. Small contributions from Tom Latham (38), Henry Nicholls (42), Colin de Grandhomme (41), Mitchell Santner (29) and Tim Southee (25*) did help the Kiwis to get to a fighting total but it was never going to prove enough.
The failure of the top three is putting too much pressure on the middle order and is not allowing them to play freely. This was the problem in the previous tour as well. Although Latham did well as an opener amassing 244 runs in five matches at an average of 61, Guptill scored just 111 runs in same number of matches at a poor average of 22.2 that also included two ducks. Williamson did average 42.1 in the series last year, but that was mainly due to his innings of 118 in Delhi. He averaged just 23.25 in the four other matches of the series.
The fact about Guptill is that he really struggles to score on slower pitches in Asia as compared to the faster ones in New Zealand, Australia, England and South Africa. His poor averages in countries like India, Sri Lanka, the UAE and West Indies indicate his glaring weakness.
Williamson’s problem on the other hand is more mental than being technical. He is a technically fine player who produces the best results staying within his limitations. However, he has the habit of getting caught in a mental block. He is fully capable of dominating quality bowling attacks like the one that India have at present. His innings of 118 at Delhi last year was evidence of that. But, an average of 30.36 in 12 matches played in India certainly doesn’t do any justice to his calibre as a batsman. The lowest he averages in a country is 10.16 in Sri Lanka having played nine matches. So, the mental block exists there as well, which hasn’t yet allowed him to improve his record in the island nation.
Moreover, Latham’s move to No 5 has somewhat sorted out their problems against spin. However, it has opened up a whole new problem at the top of the order with Munro looking all at sea against quality pacers like Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. His technique just doesn't seem enough to justify opening the innings in ODI cricket.
His unprecedented success as an opener in the Caribbean Premier League this year was the factor that led the Kiwi think-tank to promote him to the top of the order for this series. But, it has to be understood that T20 and ODI cricket are totally different ball games. Short bursts of big hitting may come useful at the top of the order in T20s. But, in ODIs, long innings that set a platform for the middle order to flourish are the requirement. Munro doesn't fit that role in any way.
So, the New Zealand think-tank needs to shake things up a bit at the top of the order in order to get results. They can push Munro down the order again to let him do what he does best in the slog overs. Latham is doing well in the middle order and his promotion to the top will again weaken the spin handling capabilities of the middle order. There is no point in pushing him up once again.
Instead, they can try to pair Williamson along with Guptill at the top. He has done it in T20Is and there is no reason why he can't succeed in ODI cricket. He has all the capabilities that an opener needs and his role at the top will just allow him some extra time to settle down and play the anchoring role.
They need to be a bit proactive while going in to the series decider. They lost the series last year by a narrow 3-2 margin. And they will want to set things straight this time by winning the series. But, that won't be possible without sufficient contributions from the top order. The bowlers and the middle order batsmen are all in good form and contributing. It is high time that the top order gets going to help the Kiwis sail through the final ODI with flying colours.