Mount Maunganui: Three weeks ago, the Black Caps visited Mount Maunganui for an ODI double-header against Sri Lanka. On 3 and 5 January, they smashed 690 runs across 100 overs in a span of 72 hours. They return to the Bay Oval this weekend for another double-header against the Men in Blue, hoping to recover some of that magic.
New Zealand’s score of 157 against India at Napier on Wednesday was a bit of an anti-climax after they had managed 371-7 and 319-7 against Sri Lanka earlier this month. It is plain that this Indian side presents a very different challenge. Barring England, not many ODI outfits are capable of bringing out such contrasting performances from their opposition in such short duration.
The outcome of one match though cannot define a complete series, or even the context for it. And this is where renewed hope lies for the Black Caps. Coming back to the scene of their triumphant scores against Lanka, they will seek confidence against India on Saturday, and Monday, hoping to see their batsmen put up a more rounded batting performance. Atleast Trent Boult thought so, having witnessed the ease with which India coasted to victory chasing 150-odd at McLean Park.
A good batting surface will be on offer again, and New Zealand’s bowlers desperately need a cushion of runs to bowl against. Playing two spinners is out of the question; the boundaries are short and Indian batsmen play spin well enough. Not to mention, the Bay Oval wicket will not offer as much turn as the previous pitch did. “We didn’t expect the Napier pitch to turn like it did, but moving to here, it is usually a good wicket,” said Boult.
You get the impression New Zealand have consigned that loss to the dustbin, almost as a one-off. Sure, there are lessons to be learnt from it, but mostly it came down to two diving catches taken by Yuzvendra Chahal. They were not simple return catches, and he almost didn’t reach them. Things could have panned out differently – atleast in terms of New Zealand’s score – if Ross Taylor and Tom Latham had survived those instances.
If this indeed is how they are thinking, then the Black Caps won’t be making any changes. Pretty much the same can be said about the visitors, albeit there is always a rider attached as concerns Indian batting and bowling mix.
Virat Kohli did throw a curveball in Napier by dropping Dinesh Karthik. It was surprising because after finishing a close game in Adelaide, the batsman had underlined how he had been entrusted with the finishing job. Even so, this move made sense from the longer-term viewpoint. India are yet to sort out their middle order, and simply have to afford more chances to Ambati Rayudu, or for that matter whoever bats at number four, as Kohli said in Melbourne.
For the moment, it looks like the team management is intent on persisting with Rayudu. After all, they bet on him after an impressive 2018 IPL season and he repaid their faith in the Asia Cup as well as at home against the West Indies. Rayudu struck 392 runs in 11 innings at an average of 56 including a hundred and three fifties, that’s an impressive return whichever way you look at it, however, those runs came in sub-continental conditions – an important factor that cannot be denied either.
Scoring in Australia, New Zealand and England (since that’s where the World Cup will be played) is a totally different prospect. Thus far, in three innings in Australia and New Zealand, Rayudu has come a cropper – a grand total of 37 runs from Sydney, Adelaide and Napier ODIs. More pertinently, he hasn’t looked in any sort of ‘in-form touch’. His starts have been painfully slow, his timing has looked off, and he, quite simply, doesn’t inspire confidence at number four.
The question to ask here is if the team management realizes this, and indeed are starting to wonder. Perhaps not, but slowly and surely, time is starting to run out. India have nine ODIs, and five T20Is, remaining before the World Cup. You have to assume that they would still want to trial someone else at this spot, if Rayudu fails to score big in the next two matches.
It also explains why Kohli has been rested. There was some wonderment when the skipper came out to bat at Napier, when alternatively, he could have stepped aside and asked Rayudu to get some game time instead in a comfortable chase. Maybe the desire to press home an advantage and get that 1-0 lead without any hiccups over-rode this decision.
If Rayudu continues to be selected, and there is no reason to doubt he won’t be, then India will not want to touch their present combination. In a manner of speaking, it is also their perfect formula in ODI cricket as defined by Kohli – two pacers, two spinners, an all-rounder, and a part-timer, allowing MS Dhoni to bat at number five.
This does leave a couple questions unanswered, however. For one, is Vijay Shankar only keeping the spot warm for Hardik Pandya (who is on his way to New Zealand at the time of writing)? And secondly, how do you fit in the finisher (read Karthik)?
In Napier, it was about balancing the bowling and giving Rayudu another chance. The eight-wicket win certainly helped in this regard. And as long as his bowlers keep putting in powerhouse performances, Kohli won’t have to worry about who is finishing off tense chases.