It is has been five years since India last toured New Zealand for an ODI series. Given the rigorous modern-day schedules, it is difficult to digest the fact that it has been such an eternity since the two teams clashed in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
The five-match series might be a rare event on the calendar, but it is a crucial series for both teams. The five matches are India's last assignment abroad before the World Cup in May. The Black Caps have another three-match series against Bangladesh but will be desperate to test themselves against the team ranked 2 in the world.
For India, the series win in Australia was significant given the absence of Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya. But there is still the big question over the No 4 spot and time is running out for the team management. As many as eleven batsmen have batted at the No 4 spot since the 2015 World Cup. Out of those, Yuvraj Singh, Ajinkya Rahane and Manish Pandey are out of the picture.
Ambati Rayudu boasts of a healthy average of 48.8 at No 4 from his six innings, but four of those innings have come against West Indies and on home soil. Rayudu struggled in both the matches in Australia and there is still a question mark about his ability against quality opposition on foreign tracks. It might be too early to ditch the Rayudu-at-four experiment and he should get at least two games to prove his value.
The other logical option and one that vice-captain Rohit Sharma insisted on during the recent Australia series was to have MS Dhoni at No 4. The wicketkeeper-batsman has batted there 12 times in the last four years and averages 76.84. However, Virat Kohli stated at the conclusion of the third match in Australia that he believed Dhoni's ideal spot was No 5. Dhoni himself declared he was happy to bat at any position. Dinesh Karthik averages 52.80 at that spot, but he has been designated the finishing role and is locked in at No 6.
Ideally, a No 4 should be able to handle the new ball in case the two top order batsmen are dismissed early. He should also have the capabilities to accelerate the innings through the middle phases. But such has been the solidity of the top three that in the past 12 months, the No 4 has only batted before the 10th over on just three instances.
Apart from the No 4 dilemma, the Men in Blue look quite settled. The absence of Pandya will once again lead to the few combination predicaments and may result in few opportunities for Vijay Shankar, especially if India decide to play both wrist spinners.
The short dimensions of the New Zealand grounds will test Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, as will the nature of the surfaces. Generally, the pitches in New Zealand get better for batting as the match progresses and the 3 pm local start time means dew could be a big factor during the last 10 overs of the game. It means the toss could have a huge bearing. In the past two years, teams that have won the toss and elected to bowl in the day/night matches have managed to win 80% of the matches.
The Kiwis have an outstanding record against India at home, winning 21 and losing just 10. India have a win/loss ratio of 0.560 in New Zealand which is the lowest winning percentage on foreign soil. The hosts have only lost one out of their last five series. Only South Africa and England have managed to topple them at home.
Ross Taylor has been the in-form player for the Black Caps in the past two years, averaging 72.61 with five hundred and 13 fifties. Add to that, the brilliance of Kane Williamson, the consistent Martin Guptill, and the robust Colin Munro and the hosts have a top four that will cause plenty of headaches for the Indian bowling.
Munro's strike-rate of 115.63 is the highest for any opening batsmen in world cricket over the past two years. He has the tendency to give New Zealand a blazing start on which the likes of Taylor and Williamson thrive on. One member that will look forward to playing India is Tom Latham. The wicketkeeper-batsman had an outstanding series in India in 2017 and his ability to overcome the Indian spinners through the middle overs will be vital to his team's chances.
Like India, the Kiwis are a relatively settled unit heading into the World Cup. The return of Mitch Santner provides another spin bowling option and his prowess with the willow in the lower-order gives the hosts depth in their batting. One area that the Black Caps are trying to rectify is the death-over bowling. Trent Boult is one option, but Tim Southee has struggled in recent times and the Blackcaps are in search to find an alternative option. Lockie Ferguson is one choice, the other being Doug Bracewell.
With the World Cup approaching, the five-match series presents both teams the opportunity to finetune their strategies and find the right team balance.