Ahead of the fourth One-Day International (ODI) between India and New Zealand at the JSCA International Stadium in Ranchi, the sight of captain MS Dhoni sweating it out in the nets during the optional practice session sent out a strong message.
That Ranchi's favourite son was not content with a resurgent knock in the third one-dayer alone, and that he has to shine in equal magnitude in the upcoming fixture, if not more brightly. Not just to seal the five-match series for his team, but to enthrall fans in Ranchi with a big score — which he is yet to produce on his home ground.
One cannot help but acknowledge the fact that the limelight will mostly be on India's limited-overs captain in the forthcoming game. A rare occasion where batting superstar and Test leader Virat Kohli takes the backseat.
From the Indian point of view, Dhoni's return to his old striking form, in addition to Kohli's magnificence with the bat which was further embellished with an unbeaten 154 at Mohali, will be a massive boost in their pursuit of taking an unassailable 3-1 series lead in Ranchi.
It was Dhoni's decision to promote himself in the batting lineup to No 4 that worked wonders for him with a 91-ball 80, and the wicketkeeper-batsman is expected to repeat the move in the penultimate match of the series.
The only concern with this move, however, is the lack of a tried-and-tested finisher in the middle order in his place in the squad, which was retained for the fourth and fifth ODIs with the exception of Suresh Raina, who is yet to recover from a bout of fever that cost him his place in the side.
The biggest worry for the skipper, however, will be the opening combination of Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane, who have failed to get India off to good starts in all three ODIs so far.
Rahane, who had to change his batting position once again after injuries to KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan, is yet to get a big score as an opener despite getting off to promising starts, and faces the risk of returning to the middle-order, where there will be a plenty of competition awaiting him once the regular openers get fit.
As for Rohit, he seems to have retreated to his woeful ways as a batsman after a brief return to form in the Test series (where he averaged 79). Kohli and the middle-order have largely made up for their failures, although their patience would be growing thin by now.
Thursday will offer Kedar Jadhav another chance to impress the selectors, and further cement his berth in the team. The part-timer from Maharashtra, who is fast developing into an all-rounder, has been an effective weapon for breaking partnerships for his captain, aside from top-scoring for the hosts with a fast-paced 41 in Delhi.
He bowled brilliantly once again in Mohali (where he made commentator Scott Styris walk out after taking his first wicket), finishing with figures of 3/29. He will certainly look to make full use of a pitch devoid of grass that could offer some turn, which will also be good news for spin leader Amit Mishra as well as Axar Patel.
With the series yet to be settled in their favour, the Indian team management is unlikely to tinker with their winning combination from Mohali, which means that the reserves in Mandeep Singh, Jayant Yadav and Dhawal Kulkarni are unlikely to get a shot before the final one-dayer. A surprise however, cannot be ruled out in this regard, given that Axar's inability to shine either as a batsman or bowler could make a case for the selection of another all-rounder in Jayant.
The Black Caps must have been disappointed to hand the momentum back to the hosts after kindling hopes in their fans following a narrow, albeit unexpected, win in Delhi. They will have to put in the hard yards at Ranchi to level the series.
For starters, Ross Taylor seems to be going through one of the lowest points of his career, at least as far as his run as a batsman in concerned. After producing a string of low scores for the most part in the tour that began back in September, he let go of a sitter off Kohli in Mohali that could have seen the latter's back for 6.
It turned out to be one of the costliest misses ever, as Kohli went on to add another 148 runs to setup the seven-wicket win. Off the field, Brendon McCullum's damning revelations in his book Declared (in which Baz has dedicated an entire chapter to him) haven't helped his case either.
His 44 in the previous game though, was a marked improvement for him, and constant support from the likes of Tim Southee and Tom Latham should do his confidence a world of good.
Kane Williamson seemed to have returned to his prolificness with his 128-ball 118 in the second game, but couldn't follow it up with another big one on Sunday. The captain will certainly look to sign out of the tour on a high by restoring the flow of runs from his bat in the remaining games.
Latham has by far been the most consistent member of the squad in any capacity. Barring a 46 in Delhi, the left-handed opener has managed to bring up a half-century in each match of the tour so far, and will be looking to go one step further by getting to the three-figure mark in Ranchi. What he would also hope for would be a little contribution by the misfiring Martin Guptill, whose batting woes seemed to have ignored the change of formats, and persisted.
Their biggest worry however, will be their middle-order, which has so far done a terrible job in sustaining the momentum after decent starts by the top-order.
Kiwi glovesman Luke Ronchi might have finished as the top run-getter for his side in the Tests, but he hardly seems to have carried that form over to the ODIs, where he has gathered a measly seven runs at an average of less than three. BJ Watling, who had kept wickets in the five-day leg of the tour, was seen getting a few knocks in the practice nets, which could signal Williamson's intent of bringing him into the side at the former's expense.
All-rounder Corey Anderson's return to the side after a spate of injuries was a hopeful one, given his experience of playing limited-overs cricket in the subcontinent before. An average of 10.33 however, has only taken the shine away from his comeback. Which only builds further pressure on the likes of Jimmy Neesham and the tail, which did a brilliant job in rescuing their side from the blushes with an 84-run ninth-wicket stand in Mohali.
There's a plenty riding on both teams ahead of the match. While the situation has already turned into a must-win one for the Kiwis, who will be desperate to fly back home with at least something to smile about, Dhoni will look to close in on what would be their first bilateral ODI series win against a team other than Zimbabwe since November 2014. For the locals however, it would all be about witnessing a Mahi special in their backyard, which hopefully will end on a perfect winning note.
Updated Date: Oct 26, 2016 08:52 AM