On a high after a defining tour of Australia , Virat Kohli-led India faces a trickier challenge when it locks horns with an ever-so-sprightly New Zealand in a five-match ODI series starting Wednesday.
India, which has shifted its focus entirely on World Cup preparations, is still searching for the right middle-order combination despite its first-ever bilateral ODI series win on Australian soil. Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s hat-trick of half-centuries has brought joy to the dressing room but the smaller grounds in New Zealand against a better seam attack comprising the wily Trent Boult, the talented Lockie Ferguson and the relentless Tim Southee will be a different test altogether.
New Zealand has always been a force to reckon with in its own backyard and the touring Indian teams over the years will testify that, having won only 10 out of 35 ODIs, including a 4-0 drubbing during the last series in 2014.
Skipper Kohli is well aware that the Black Caps, with some quality players in their ranks, can be very competitive.
“The fact they are number three 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. They have that energy and that buzz about them and they play their cricket in the right way which is something we always appreciate,” Kohli said at the pre-series media conference.
India needs to address some issues including Shikhar Dhawan’s form, Dhoni’s batting position and how to get the balance right until all-rounder Hardik Pandya's return from suspension.
Left-hander Dhawan’s position at the top of the order is under no imminent threat but a highest score of 35 in the last nine games doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Rishabh Pant's inclusion in the India A squad to face England Lions in a home series is an indicator that the team management is trying to get back-up options ready. An immensely talented Shubman Gill has been selected as a reserve opener but it is unlikely that Dhawan will be dropped after a few failures.
The number four position is another area of concern for India as Ambati Rayudu, after an inexplicable retirement from first-class cricket, looked completely out of sorts and is unlikely to regain his place in the side. Dhoni did well at that position in the final ODI against Australia but Kohli is likely to use him more as a floater depending on match situations. With the Napier ODI promising to be a high-scoring affair in sultry conditions, Dinesh Karthik or Kedar Jadhav could be promoted up the order.
The New Zealand top-order also has a formidable look with one of the world’s best batsmen in skipper Kane Williamson and the ever-dangerous Ross Taylor, who is second only to Kohli in terms of batting averages (92) in 2018, holding forte.
“We saw in the last series (vs Sri Lanka) we want to execute a few things better, certainly in the field we want to step up and get back to our old ways which is that real attitude in the park,” Williamson said.