The best-laid plans of men and mice often go awry; with the New Zealanders it turned out to be at the toss.
When they won the first ODI in Mumbai, the Kiwis looked so thoroughly organised and well-prepared for the India series that it was felt that they might well whitewash a tired and jaded home team in its own backyard. Yet for all the clinical precision that they showed in Mumbai, it needed just one bad decision with the toss for the Kiwis to come unstuck and for India to come roaring back into reckoning. By the end of the Pune ODI, balance had been restored and the third ODI at Kanpur has now been unexpectedly elevated into a finale, a tie-breaker, a series-decider.
While analysts will pore into the reasons for the sudden fall in standards in New Zealand’s cricket, what was most baffling was their skipper Kane Williamson choosing to bat first. Not surprisingly, Indian skipper Virat Kohli said that if he had won the toss he would have opted to bowl first on the Pune pitch.
It was not as if Williamson asked his men to march into the valley of death. But he might as well have, considering that it was the formula of chasing which had paid him such rich dividends in the first ODI. At the time the choice was not his. But he had tasted success while stifling the Indian batting and then gloriously chasing down the target.
At Pune, he discarded the tried-and-tested and instead opted to bat first. It was an unmitigated disaster as a sharp and hungry Indian fast bowling attack made full use of the fresh pitch to prise out the Kiwi batsmen. The top order was swatted away by the seventh over. In another 10 overs, only traces of it was to be seen. By the 40th over, it was evident that the match was going only one way.
Would the Kiwis have fared better if they had bowled first? Probably.
At least then there would have been some logic in their cricket. Instead, it ended up with them using the Pune encounter as a recuperation halt following the dreadful heat and humidity of Mumbai.
It was no secret that the Mumbai humidity took quite a toll on the Kiwis. Many of them had ice packs brought in at the end of each over in an attempt to cool off. Dehydration was a major issue and despite consuming litres of water and other liquid replenishments, the Mumbai heat and humidity triggered cramps and other related issues among the Kiwis.
A few players had not recovered sufficiently for the skipper to risk making them bowl first in what he erroneously expected could be blazing heat and debilitating humidity. He decided his batsmen would bat when it was hot and then their fielders and bowlers would take over during the cooler periods of late evening and under lights.
The logic was sound, except the Pune weather was something else altogether. There was neither the heat nor humidity of Mumbai with the result that Williamson’s strategy, along with his team, went belly up.
For all the planning and strategising that New Zealand had done and impressed with in the first ODI, their failure to appreciate that India’s weather and climatic conditions were varied and different from centre to centre cost them dear.
It is possible that their key players’ experience of uniformly struggling in the sweltering heat of summer during the IPL sojourn could have clouded their judgment. They might have thought that if Mumbai can be so oppressively hot in October, its neighbouring city Pune would be no better.
That wrong call was sufficient to truly cook their goose. It also allowed the Indian team to stage a spectacular recovery. Unlike New Zealand, who being poor front runners had allowed the momentum to slip away from their grasp, the Indian team would go on to show they were made of sterner stuff. The Kiwis seemed flat when on top.
On the other hand, the Indians won’t flinch from seizing the initiative and running away with it at the slightest opportunity. The Mumbai loss stung the team pretty badly. Pune was all about regaining their mojo. Kanpur might well be payback time. The Kiwis had better watch out.