During Australia’s dominant days of yore, there was an unabashed jostle for the second spot, contemporarily a tussle between New Zealand and India on the brink of a crescendo, with England a cut above. However, unlike the yawning chasm between Australia and the rest early into this century, neither team is trailing the upcoming World Cup hosts unthreateningly. Hot on India’s heels, New Zealand are ranked third, albeit trailing by eight rating points. While only an unlikely whitewash will see the hosts usurp India, nobody will be fooled by numbers; these teams have so little to choose between them, it’s suffocating.
India’s top three comfortably edges New Zealand’s, as it does most others’, averaging in excess of 64 since the Champions Trophy. But here they will be up against a masterful swing bowling pair of Trent Boult and Tim Southee. The hosts’ middle order has a more settled countenance, with Nos. 4 to 7 averaging over 47 with five hundreds as opposed to India’s 34 with one hundred in the same period.
That middle order will be further bolstered by Tom Latham‘s return, whose proficiency at tackling spin could prove pivotal, especially should India opt to field their most potent weapon: a pair of wily wristspinners, who already have more five wicket hauls between them in South Africa, England and Australia than Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja combined in ODIs.
Incidentally, during New Zealand’s three-match ODI series against India in 2017, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal only featured together in the first ODI in Mumbai. Such was the command with which their threat was blunted by Ross Taylor and Latham that it pushed India on the defensive, leading to the omission of Kuldeep from the next two ODIs.
Their inclusion is an irresistible proposition, a fact corroborated by Virat Kohli post the series win in Melbourne. But perhaps the temptation to go that way would have to be tempered with pragmatism, with the possibility eventually hinging on the confidence the team management has in allrounder Vijay Shankar‘s bowling abilities.
Usually a five-match ODI series has a tendency to lose context mid-way, especially should it prove one-sided, but these two can potentially produce cricket of a calibre so high that it might leave one longing for more.
New Zealand WWWLW (Last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Without being sensational, Vijay Shankar was steady with the ball on debut in Melbourne, immediately emerging as the pivot around whom India can be best balanced in the absence of Hardik Pandya. With him slotted at seven, the top and middle-order can play with a little more freedom than they did in Australia, where they had a less reassuring Jadeja performing that role. And with Kedar Jadhav immediately finding form on return to the ODI side, the load of the fifth bowler can be shared between the two, allowing India to play both Kuldeep and Chahal and attack with the ball during the middle overs. Vijay is also well acquainted with the conditions in New Zealand, having had a prolific tour of the country with the bat for India A in November and December.
For all the brilliance of New Zealand’s middle order, the opening combination remains wobbly, with Colin Munro yet to replicate performances that make him a certainty in any T20 side. Sandwiched between two failures against Sri Lanka was a 77-ball 87, his highest ODI score. Therein lies the hitch; in 46 matches he is yet to score a hundred. However, in his last competitive match in the Super Smash for Auckland, he struck 41 and took four wickets, showcasing some form but importantly reinstating his value as an allrounder, something he could work to his advantage in the absence of James Neesham.
India fielded their most balanced side in the decider in Melbourne that they won. The toss up for the first ODI in Napier could be between Ravindra Jadeja, who is a more condition-specific bowler in ODIs, and the more attacking Kuldeep Yadav, or a third seamer in Mohammed Siraj or Khaleel Ahmed.
India (likely): 1 Rohit Sharma, 2 Shikhar Dhawan, 3 Virat Kohli (capt), 4 MS Dhoni (wk), 5 Kedar Jadhav, 6 Dinesh Karthik, 7 Vijay Shankar, 8 Ravindra Jadeja/Kuldeep Yadav/Khaleel Ahmed, 9 Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 10 Mohammed Shami, 11 Yuzvendra Chahal.
New Zealand are likely to make some changes to the side that completed a clean-sweep against Sri Lanka in Nelson, notwithstanding Kane Williamson’s assertion that it was their best performance of the series. Tom Latham will come in for Tim Seifert behind the stumps, Mitchell Santner could take the allrounder’s spot replacing the injured James Neesham and Matt Henry will likely have to make way for the returning spearhead Trent Boult.
New Zealand (likely): 1 Martin Guptill, 2 Colin Munro, 3 Kane Williamson (capt), 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Tom Latham (wk), 6 Henry Nicholls, 7 Colin de Grandhomme/Mitchell Santner, 8 Tim Southee, 9 Lockie Ferguson/Doug Bracewell, 10 Trent Boult, 11 Ish Sodhi
Pitch and conditions
McLean Park in Napier has undergone a revamp following the abandonment of two ODIs against Pakistan and Australia due to poor drainage. It last hosted a completed ODI in the 2015 World Cup. It has short square boundaries and the reputation of being a batting-friendly venue, where India last played in 2014, losing by 24 runs despite a hundred from Virat Kohli.
“The fact they are No. 3 in the world speaks about their consistency over the last couple of years. We played them in India and got beaten in Mumbai, and all the games were competitive and we felt they had a really good balance.”
India captain Virat Kohli on the opposition