Three-match One-Day International series, three-match Twenty20 International series
October 22 to November 7
The main picture
New Zealand came here for a near full tour in 2016 and went close to winning their first bilateral ODI series against India in India in what was their fifth attempt. They were whitewashed 3-0 in the Test series, but the five-ODI series was evenly contested and only a batting capitulation in the fifth ODI in Visakhapatnam handed the hosts a 3-2 series victory. This was exactly 12 months ago and since then, a lot has changed with the Indian limited-overs teams, in particular. And the Kiwis might find the challenge, which is winning a bilateral One-Day International series against India in India, to be doubly difficult this time around.
For starters, the aforementioned India vs New Zealand ODI series was MS Dhoni’s last as captain of India. He stepped down from the role right at the start of 2017 and contrary to expectations, the Indian one-day side now led by Virat Kohli have gone from strength to strength over the course of this year. They are a whole lot more resourceful and settled compared to the team who played against New Zealand last year. The change we have witnessed with the Indian ODI team is a reminder of just how long a period 12 months is and the consequent scope for change in the fortunes.
Mind you, before beating Kane Williamson and co. last October, Dhoni’s devils had won just one One-Day International series (against Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe in 2016)—losing 2-1 to Bangladesh right after the quadrennial event, being beaten 2-3 at home by South Africa towards the end of 2015 and losing 4-1 to Australia down under at the start of 2016—since the last World Cup.
Hardik Pandya, who made his ODI debut against New Zealand on October 16, 2016 and won the man-of-the-match for his bowling exploits, is fast becoming the all-rounder Indian cricket has long yearned for; Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have seemingly ended India’s death overs woes, while they also are, going by the last two series at least, ODI specialists; though they are part of the ongoing experiment, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav are growing in stature and casting more doubt over the futures of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in the Indian limited-overs teams, and the batting line-up is spearheaded by Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli.
This year, India have won each of the bilateral ODI series they have played and this upturn in results has helped them become the No. 1 one-day side. One of the major reasons for India’s success has been their boasting a strong core of players, namely Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, former captain Dhoni, all-rounder Pandya, Bhuvneshwar, and Bumrah. The presence of a strong core has meant that integrating two or three new personnel doesn’t affect the balance and strength of the team and also helps the win-hungry Kohli continue to chase and achieve success.
India’s biggest area of concern at this time is the middle order. Selecting Dinesh Karthik for the three-ODI series against New Zealand is an indication of the selectors and the team management wanting to address this issue. Manish Pandey had an ordinary time with the bat against Australia and probably to his own surprise, retained his place in the playing XI for the entirety of the one-day and T20 International series. Lokesh Rahul, who has been a contender for one of the middle order spots in the Indian batting line-up, suddenly seems out of favour. This is Karthik’s time to grab the opportunity with both hands and potentially overtake the two Karnataka batsmen in the pecking order for the World Cup 2019. Shardul Thakur is the other addition to the one-day squad from the one named for the series versus Australia.
India, thanks to their new-found resources and the consequent balance and dynamism, will start this ODI series as overwhelming favourites. In addition to being the home team, they are better than New Zealand in every department and in every way you look at this upcoming series.
New Zealand’s most obvious challenge within this challenge of conquering India is playing spin. The Kiwi batsmen have historically struggled against all kinds of spinners and this was evident even during their tour of India last year. Kedar Jadhav has developed a spinning armoury that even the likes of Steve Smith and David Warner have found hard to cope with and fallen to. But back in October 2016, when he just began bowling in international cricket, the New Zealand batsmen made him look like a world class off-spinner—Jadhav took 6/73 in that series, his six wickets including the prized scalps of Kane Williamson, Corey Anderson, James Neesham, etc.—and his heroics then have been instrumental in his development. This is just a case in point because New Zealand were bowled out for 79 runs in 23.1 overs, chasing 270 for victory in the final ODI, with Amit Mishra (5), Axar Patel (2) and Jayant Yadav (1) taking eight wickets between them. Mishra finished the series with 15 wickets.
What makes playing spin a monumental challenge for the visiting Kiwis is Chahal and Kuldeep have blossomed already. They don’t concede a lot of runs and already in their embryonic careers, have thrived in pressure cooker situations. While playing spin is New Zealand’s achilles heel, India’s pace battery has plenty of ammunition up its sleeve and the approach from the visiting batsmen needs to be right. Try to go too hard at Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah and you might lose early wickets, and on the other hand, if you try to be cautious, you will still put yourself in a dicey situation, particularly considering New Zealand’s weakness against spin.
Kane Williamson is a fantastic player of spin. His footwork is exemplary, he makes good use of the crease to move back and forth well and does step out of the crease cleverly to keep the spinners honest. Not just as a batsman but more so as a great batsman against spin, Williamson has a key role to play in this series. Five players who were part of the A side (George Worker, Matt Henry, Colin Munro, Henry Nicholls, and Glenn Phillips) have been added to New Zealand’s squads. And, while each of them will look to contribute substantially, Williamson, Martin Guptill, Tom Latham, and Ross Taylor will have to shoulder the bulk of the batting responsibility. During the Champions Trophy, we saw New Zealand being over-reliant on Williamson the batsman, who, despite scoring two half-centuries (87 and 57) against England and Bangladesh, couldn’t save his country from being knocked out of the tournament.
New Zealand are well-stocked in the bowling department with Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Adam Milne, and Mitchell Santner, among others, boasting experience and having undoubted quality. But their ability to affect matches will depend massively on the batting line-up’s wherewithal to put runs on the board and not flounder against spin.
The Kiwis have played no cricket whatsoever since the conclusion of the Champions Trophy in June 2017 and their ouster at the group stage of this tournament. So, rustiness might also be an issue, though they have arrived a fortnight ahead of the first ODI and they have played and won one of their two practice matches against Board President’s XI, while the members of their A team have been getting sufficient match practice against India A. Williamson, at a press conference in Mumbai last Sunday, spoke about getting used to the climatic conditions apart from the nature of pitches he and his team will encounter.
At home, away and at neutral venues, New Zealand have beaten India in five of the six T20 Internationals between these two teams. They have edged India once and beaten them comfortably on the four other occasions. India and New Zealand have never played a full T20I series until now. So, not only do India have a good chance of bringing their win-less run to an end but also potentially, win that series. Ashish Nehra will bow out of international cricket on November 1, when the first T20I will be played at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi.
New Zealand have variety in their bowling attack, but as a unit, the visitors’ chances of winning the upcoming series will depend greatly on how the batting line-up fares. This Indian side are arguably the most complete compared to those of yesteryears and in the generations gone by. And so, they rightly start as favourites.