India face tricky Kiwis test

Cricket First ODI

India face tricky Kiwis test

Opening and middle-order slots pose tough questions for Dhoni’s men

India would look to gain some valuable experience and confidence when they clash with New Zealand in a five-match ODI series, beginning here on Sunday as Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his boys will begin the defence of their World Cup title on these very shores next year.

The reigning World Champions will also be looking to defend their number one ODI ranking against the eighth-ranked hosts. Against South Africa, the Indian team management decided to use the three-match series as a learning exercise for the ensuing Test series. It worked up to an extent against their formidable opponents with their young Test side losing the two-match series only on the last day of the tour at Durban.

While the importance of taking that learning forward in the Tests against New Zealand cannot be neglected, at the same time, the India need to up the ante in ODIs as the run-up to their title defence officially begins. The 16-man squad that has arrived here is already a much settled unit, losing only to Pakistan at home and South Africa away in the calendar year 2013, winning six consecutive ODI contests in between.

While this provides a good starting point, there are important questions that need to be answered. The first of them is related to the opening combination, with both Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma not doing much in South Africa, ODIs and Tests combined. Sharma perhaps has more time, given that he bats in the middle order in the longer format and particularly because on away tours, the role of openers to give a solid start becomes more important. Murali Vijay performed reasonably in Tests against SA, further highlighting Dhawan’s plight, who scored only 88 runs in six innings (avg. 14.66) in Africa. Even so, the toughest question pertains to the middle-order, given that a misfiring Yuvraj Singh is no longer part of this ODI squad.  

The number four spot is proving to be a pain ever since this season started against Australia at home. Suresh Raina moved back to this spot in that series but the southpaw himself is struggling for consistency. Either he needs to draw experience of finishing the innings in these conditions, batting at number five or six, or he needs to learn how to drive the batting from number four, in preparation of the World Cup next year. Doing both is not an option for him or the team management.

Although he continues to be a great resource for the ODI side, with his sharp fielding and bowling skills, his first job is to score runs and they have only come at a trickle since last October (207 runs in 9 innings, avg. 23).

He will need to watch out for Ambati Rayudu and Stuart Binny who will come into contention at some point in this series. Especially the latter if Raina continues to bat at number five or six, since Binny too is a lower-order batsman. More importantly, he bowls military medium, which could be an additional usage in these windy and bouncy conditions. Perhaps, Ajinkya Rahane, who was in superb touch in Tests against SA, is a shoe-in to bat at number four on the morrow. 

The pace department looks settled for India. Ishant Sharma and Mohammad Shami will look to carry on from where they left off in South Africa, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar getting another look-in. Otherwise there is always Ishwar Pandey and Varun Aaron to contend with. It looks like India will play five bowlers, though spin is where the real competition is. R Ashwin needs to win back his Test spot from Ravindra Jadeja and while both are expected to feature in the Indian ODI eleven, this could shape up to be a personal duel between them. For New Zealand too, this series is a good launch-pad to firm up their plans for the future. Skipper Brendon McCullum hinted that they might look to play four fast bowlers in the first ODI.

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