India must not be blinded by ODI success in New Zealand ahead of the World Cup
Despite 4-1 series win in New Zealand, men in blue will likely find damp conditions challenging during English summer and their one defeat is a reminder they are not the finished article
Dead rubbers in any cricket series, with one side having already wrapped things up with games to spare, can easily be written off as being of little interest.
The business of overall victory has been wrapped up by one side with the other already knowing they have been beaten does, on paper, lower the competitive nature of things.
But, they can still be of use to the sides going forward. A case in point is India’s eight-wicket defeat to New Zealand in the fourth one-day international on Thursday.
Having taken an unassailable 3-0 lead in their five-match series, and with no Virat Kohli or MS Dhoni in the XI, the Hamilton ODI provided an ideal opportunity for the touring party’s other batsmen to get some match practice and prove that the bench is deep.
But they struggled on a pitch that had plenty in it for the seamers and were bowled out for an appallingly low 92.
India’s second-lowest total in this format against the Black Caps will be a cause for concern when viewed through the prism of an approaching Cricket World Cup.
Because even though they eventually won this series 4-1, they must be prepared for lots more swing during the first half of the competition being hosted by England and Wales between May 30-July 14.
Perhaps keeping this in mind, Rohit Sharma opted to bat first after winning the toss in the fifth ODI just three days after the Hamilton no-show. The Wellington pitch also had its challenges, and the stand-in captain was clearly determined to make amends and give his teammates the chance to do so.
While Rohit himself scored just two runs on Sunday, the faith he reposed in his fellow batsmen bore fruit as India posted a winning total of 252 after languishing at 18-4 at one stage. And for the boost in morale the team will have received from this effort, he deserves credit.
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That India are winning matches despite the occasional lapses, such as the one in Hamilton, is encouraging. But scratch the surface and there are some underlying issues.
For one, India’s middle order remains an unfinished article.
There is enough quality there, as Ambati Rayudu along with all-rounders Hardik Pandya and Vijay Shankar proved with their match-winning performances in Wellington.
Kedar Jadhav and Dinesh Karthik are both worthy of playing for their country, too. And while a returning Dhoni flopped in the last game, he will have gained plenty of confidence from his recent outings in Australia.
But their lack of consistency means India will continue to rely on their top-order players, including Rohit, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli. This will only put more pressure on the likes of Rohit and Dhawan whose techniques can sometimes get undone in challenging conditions.
India’s batsmen will also be scratching their heads wondering how to deal with the next left-arm seamer who comes along and swings the ball into the right-handers in damp conditions.
Trent Boult belongs to a rare class of bowlers and no one has taken more wickets in the 50-over format than he has since the conclusion of the 2015 World Cup. But even as India struggled to read his in-swingers and the deliveries that went straight on with the angle, they will probably have been reminded of Pakistan seamer Mohammed Amir’s match-winning spell against them in the final of the 2017 Champions Trophy in English conditions.
Once is unfortunate. Twice could be a coincidence. But avoiding such ignominy a third time, possibly at the World Cup, will be yet one more thing for batting coach Sanjay Bangar to worry about.
Hamilton also proved there is a very real risk of India’s batting faltering in the United Kingdom, even if it happens on the odd occasion. Team can have off days every once in a while, but not in a tournament whose format rewards consistency over good fortune.
Of course, there is an argument to be made that the odd defeat before the World Cup is not such a bad thing for any side as it keeps the players on their toes. And India clearly applied the lessons they learnt in Hamilton to bounce back in Wellington three days later.
But the game’s biggest tournament will be played nearly 20,000 kilometres away in a competition that, fortunately or unfortunately, won't start for another 100-odd days.
The upside is that there is time to prepare, but the downside? Memories can fade between now and then.
Updated: February 4, 2019 09:41 AM