In this day and age of relentless cricket, Kohli's insistence on intensity speaks volumes of how focussed and ruthless this Indian team has become under his captaincy. However, beating New Zealand in their backyard will not be easy.
"We can't afford to ease into the series after two games, because then it keeps getting tougher and tougher, so we'll look to make a mark in the first game that we play, play expressive cricket and be sure of what we want to do."
Just four days ago, India were playing their third and final ODI against Australia in Bengaluru in what was a highly competitive series. The same night Virat Kohli gave a lengthy press conference ahead of the team's departure to the Kiwiland. The next day they were on the long flight, and in a couple of day's time, they play the first of the five T20Is against the Kiwis to start off a 40-day tour.
In this day and age of unrelenting cricket, the fact that Kohli's words revolve around the importance of intensity right from the get-go speaks volumes of how focussed and ruthless this Indian team has become under his captaincy. May be somewhere down the line, there was a quick lesson the captain has learned from the Australia series. That thrashing in the first ODI at the Wankhede stadium was a loud wake-up call, something which this Indian team has not had the habit of experiencing in the recent past. They had struggled earlier to crack the T20 code but now they seem to be getting a hang of the format and are on a five-series unbeaten streak (four wins) in the T20I arena.
In fact, they have been rampant in all formats. Set aside the rare World Cup blip, India have won 10 out of their last 11 international series and drawn one with zero losses. It underlines their consistency. And the manner of the ODI series win — 2-1 scoreline from 0-1 down against a formidable Australian side who themselves have been on a roll in all the formats — would only have been an ideal confidence booster ahead of a long journey Down Under.
"It's important," Kohli said of the Bengaluru ODI win. "We spoke of that at the huddle, that this is the last game we're playing in the series and if we win, you go on a tour on a happy note. If you lose, it can go under the radar, you can brush it aside as 'oh it's just one loss', but when you win and win under pressure — the last two games were tough wins — it boosts your confidence which we're carrying forward, so looking forward to the New Zealand tour."
As rampant India carry the momentum into the New Zealand tour, the first thing in their mind would be to improve their record against the Kiwis in the T20 format. The Black Caps have had a bit of wood over the Indians with eight wins and just three losses from 11 matches. India have had the worst win/loss ratio in T20Is, against New Zealand — 0.375. They are the only team against whom India have lost more than they have won.
The last time India toured New Zealand, in January 2019, they won the five-match ODI series 4-1 but lost the T20I series 1-2. They have played two T20I series against New Zealand away, in 2009 and 2019, and lost both.
It will be interesting to see how the Indian team adapts to a five-match T20I series. This is the first time they will be playing five T20Is in a series in the shortest format. New Zealand had played one against England in November last year and, at 2-2, lost the final match in the Super Over. Yes, there has been talk about the intensity right from the start but can India sustain it over five matches? And then over a long tour which has three more ODIs and as many Tests?
As they look to set the record straight, the key will be how the bowlers adapt to smaller grounds. The last time they toured here, they ended up conceding more than 200, in two of the three matches. The overall figures don’t paint a rosy picture either. They have averaged 32.53, struck a wicket every 22.9 balls and possess an economy rate of 8.49 against the Kiwis, their worst in each department against any team. Their economy rate of 9.02 in New Zealand in T20Is is second-worst after Zimbabwe (9.72).
Jasprit Bumrah looked a bit rusty after his comeback but Mohammed Shami was sharp against Australia. The emergence of Navdeep Saini has added another dimension to the pace department. He's befuddled the batsmen with his variations and pace. Deepak Chahar, who misses out due to injury, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who is also injured, would have loved to bowl in New Zealand conditions early on. Shardul Thakur's batting has also opened options for Kohli but needs to instill discipline and consistency with the ball.
A striking aspect of the bowling attack has been the fact that the pacers have outperformed the spinners of late and that too on Indian pitches. In the 12 matches since their unbeaten run started (3 August), they have averaged 19.57, had a strike rate of 15.9 and an economy rate of 7.36. In the same period, the spinners have averaged 34.92, had a strike rate of 26.6 and an economy rate of 7.87. It’s a tough challenge but opportunity as well for the young pacers to show their mettle.
The trial and error with the playing eleven will continue with myriad options to choose from. India's batting, as expected, looks quite strong. KL Rahul has been in the form of his life. Kohli has averaged 71 in the last five months since India's unbeaten run in T20Is started. Rohit Sharma has averaged a decent 30 in that period. However, it’s not just the bowling, they would look for improvement in batting as well. Their batting average of 23.75 in New Zealand is the worst for them in any country. Rohit averages 24 in the Kiwiland, his second-worst in any country. Kohli hasn’t played a T20I in New Zealand before. So the form of the two senior batsmen will be crucial.
Dhawan, who was just finding his groove after comeback from a knee injury, has been ruled out again, this time due to a shoulder injury. With Kohli suggesting that KL Rahul will keep wickets and might open the innings, the injury to Dhawan might have kept the door slightly open for Rishabh Pant who finds himself at crossroads currently.
He will have to battle it out with Manish Pandey and Sanju Samson for a place in the middle order purely as a batsman. And will need to pounce upon any little opportunity he gets.
The team combination will depend on how many all-rounders India include in the line-up. The strong bench strength gives India a lot of options. It's headache albeit a good one for Kohli. Medium pace options in Dube and Thakur might be preferred over a spinner on New Zealand pitches.
The Indian batsmen would be looking to step on the Kiwi's weak spot, their bowling which is bereft of the experience of Trent Boult and pace and aggression of Lockie Ferguson and Matt Henry who are all out injured. Tim Southee's experience in the pace department becomes key, along with Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi's in the spin.
Batting remains Kiwis' comparative strength, but not without concerns. Williamson hasn't played in the shortest format in 11 months. Munro's form and average have dropped. The best average for a player to have scored more than 100 runs in the last one year (1 Jan 2019) has been Ross Taylor at 27.36. In that period as a team, they have averaged just 23.55 per wicket.
Colin de Grandhomme's all-round prowesses will be the key for the Kiwis even though he will be available for just the first three matches. Wicketkeeper batsman Tim Seifert, who was the Man of the Series in the T20Is against India in 2019 home series, and all-rounder Daryl Mitchell have the capability to spring surprises and they will be coming into the series on the back of impressive performances in the domestic T20 tournament Super Smash. Siefert averaged 40.37 playing for Northern districts while Mitchell averaged 31.28 with bat and 19 with the ball. The Kiwis will look up to senior pros Martin Guptill, Ross Taylor and Williamson for consistency.
It's also a chance for pacer Hamish Benett to resurrect his New Zealand career as he makes a comeback to the side after three years. He will have confidence on his side having finished as the highest wicket-taker in the domestic T20 tournament (17 wickets at 17.17 and econ rate of 7.20) helping Wellington lift the Super Smash title. The presence of medium pace all-rounders also allows Kiwis to go in with two spinners.
The Black Caps would be looking to bounce back after 0-3 thrashing at the hands of Australia in the away Test series. There is pressure on Williamson whose captaincy has come under the scanner after the Australia loss. Nevertheless, this series also gives them a chance to test their depth ahead of the T20 World Cup.
"It will be different conditions in Australia but getting those combinations, trying a few different guys out, obviously a few injuries as well which changes the dynamic of the side, but tests the depth out and gives guys opportunities which bode well for competition for spots," Taylor told reporters.
It was the Kiwis who broke India's nine series unbeaten streak in T20Is last year; can they halt this Indian juggernaut again?
Well, it will take some effort to beat this Indian side.
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