All guns blazing

Gautam Gambhir announced his return to form in style.-PICS: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

The first three ODIs against the Kiwis had all been too easy for the Indians; with stand-in skipper Gautam Gambhir leading from the front with two well-constructed centuries. By Karthik Krishnaswamy.

With victory sealed with two games left to play, India must have felt a sense of emptiness, a feeling that this New Zealand side, unlike most New Zealand sides, showed little stomach for a scrap. A feeling that it had all been too easy for India, and that none of the questions that hung over the second-string players that took the field for this series had been answered conclusively.

Munaf Patel and S. Sreesanth, fighting a six-way battle (alongside Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Praveen Kumar and Ishant Sharma) for probably four fast-bowling spots in the World Cup squad, enjoyed good outings. But would their lines and lengths remain as impeccable against a batting side that had the quality and confidence to come at them and put them under pressure? The same question could be asked of R. Ashwin, vying for the second spinner's slot.

Some players didn't even get that opportunity.

New Zealand's toothless bowling allowed Yusuf Pathan and Wriddhiman Saha only one innings each in three matches. It was a tragicomic series for Saha, who faced just five balls, hardly an adequate test of his batting ability, before the selectors replaced him with Parthiv Patel for the last two ODIs.

Gautam Gambhir, captaining the side in M.S. Dhoni's absence, had the most fruitful time of all the players, with imposing hundreds at Jaipur and Vadodara. Watching him take the New Zealand bowling apart in almost sardonic manner, it was hard to believe that his place in the side had been questioned before the Test series.

It helped that the bowlers were either giving him width or drifting onto his pads, but what he did with those deliveries was breathtaking, for he had entered a higher plane of awareness, and was placing the ball wherever he pleased. It was at times like watching the early Sourav Ganguly, the way he pierced the packed off-side fields, using the extra split second he had to subtly alter the angle of his blade.

Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel on their own wickets won't be a tenth as easy to negotiate, but the left-handed opener will go into the series extremely high on confidence and self-belief.

Munaf Patel bowled well to keep the Kiwi batsmen in check. Patel along with S. Sreesanth and Ashish Nehra are in contention for a spot in India's World Cup squad.-

Virat Kohli will not play the Test series, but put in a hard-to-ignore application for any future middle-order vacancies. His hundred at Guwahati was a superbly paced effort on a slow wicket, the only surface that suited the New Zealand.

A smaller proportion of his runs came in boundaries than he's accustomed to, but he had little trouble scoring at over a run a ball. His half-centuries in the second ODI was full of eye-catching strokes that mocked Daniel Vettori's five-man off-side ring on the 30-yard circle.

Visibly angry at himself for getting out to a soft dismissal while on top of the bowling, Kohli returned in the third ODI to compile another fifty in the chase and remain at the crease to score the winning runs.

Back in the squad for the last three ODIs to gain match-practice ahead of the South Africa tour, Zaheer Khan bowled a superb new-ball spell in Vadodara. Yuvraj Singh's spells of left-arm spin at Guwahati and Jaipur, meanwhile, might have tilted the team management in favour of playing seven batsmen in their World Cup eleven. His batting grew in confidence too, after a painful start in the first ODI.

As the series wore on, New Zealand took fewer positives from each match.

At Guwahati, the Kiwis had their best chance of victory, but let the critical moments slip from their grasp. After Scott Styris and Grant Elliott had tied Yuvraj down with miserly middle-overs spells, Nathan McCullum released the pressure by conceding five boundaries to the left-hander in three overs. Andy McKay's late burst kept India down to a chase-able 276, but none of the top-order batsmen barring Ross Taylor stayed at the wicket long enough.

In Jaipur, New Zealand had three 50 partnerships, but none of them extended beyond 65, and the total fell well short of a possible 280 or 300. Even if they had that much to defend, it's doubtful how successful New Zealand's seamers would have been, considering the awful line they bowled to Gambhir.

In the third ODI, the batting came up short in damp morning conditions.

A lot of New Zealand's top-order batsmen thrust their front foot across the crease and got into unsound positions against the left-armers. With the ball moving around as it did, most were sitting ducks against Zaheer. He would have had more than two wickets had umpire Shahvir Tarapore been less reluctant to enforce Law 36, ruling what appeared dead-on LBW decisions against Kane Williamson and Scott Styris not out.

New Zealand Skipper Daniel Vettori is worried about his team's recent run of poor form.-

The frustrating thing about New Zealand's defeats — nine in a row (apart from two unfinished games) stretching back to August — is that Daniel Vettori seems to have a good core group and enough young talent for this to be a dangerous one-day outfit.

With a fully-fit group of players, New Zealand could possibly have Brendon McCullum opening and keeping wicket, Jesse Ryder alongside him at the top of the order, with Martin Guptill, Ross Taylor, Kane Williamson and Scott Styris to follow.

That is a potentially world class top six.

Any three from Vettori, Nathan McCullum, Grant Elliott, James Franklin and Kyle Mills would extend the batting as deep as number nine. Daryl Tuffey, Tim Southee and Andy McKay aren't the worst seam options in the world, despite their displays in this series.

But somehow, the team seems drained of all belief, letting go of any chance that comes its way.

Vettori said that it would only take one good performance – someone scoring a big hundred or taking five wickets – to arrest the slide. It is important that this happens soon. International cricket needs a strong, feisty New Zealand side.

THE SCORES

Third ODI, Vadodara, December 4, 2010. India won by nine wickets.

New Zealand: M. Guptill (run out) 12; B. McCullum c Vijay b Zaheer 0; K. Williamson lbw b Munaf 21; R. Taylor c Saha b Zaheer 4; S. Styris c Yuvraj b Ashwin 22; J. Franklin (not out) 72; D. Vettori c Yuvraj b Pathan 3; G. Hopkins c Yuvraj b Pathan 6; N. McCullum c Gambhir b Ashwin 43; K. Mills (run out) 15; Extras (b-1, lb-10, w-15) 26. Total (nine wkts., in 50 overs) 224.

Fall of wickets: 1-2, 2-19, 3-34, 4-49, 5-77, 6-96, 7-106, 8-200, 9-224.

India bowling: Zaheer 8-2-31-2; Nehra 8-1-38-0; Munaf 10-0-28-1; Ashwin 9-1-49-2; Pathan 8-0-27-2; Jadeja 7-0-40-0.

India: M. Vijay (run out) 30; G. Gambhir (not out) 126; V. Kohli (not out) 63; Extras (lb-5, w-5) 10. Total (for one wkt., in 39.3 overs) 229.

Fall of wicket: 115.

New Zealand bowling: Mills 6-0-39-0; McKay 6.3-0-42-0; Franklin 4-0-34-0; Vettori 9-0-41-0; McCullum 8-0-36-0; Styris 6-0-32-0.

* * *

Second ODI, Jaipur, December 1, 2010. India won by eight wickets.

New Zealand: M. Guptill c Saha b Ashwin 70; J. How c Saha b Sreesanth 5; K. Williamson b Munaf 29; R. Taylor c Kohli b Pathan 15; S. Styris c Saha b Sreesanth 59; D. Vettori b Sreesanth 31; G. Hopkins (not out) 11; N. McCullum (run out) 12; K. Mills b Sreesanth 13; T. Southee (not out) 2; Extras (lb-5, w-6) 11. Total (for eight wkts., in 50 overs) 258.

Fall of wickets: 1-14, 2-64, 3-96, 4-161, 5-219, 6-219, 7-243, 8-256.

India bowling: Nehra 9-1-45-0; Sreesanth 9-1-47-4; Munaf 8-0-34-1; Ashwin 10-0-52-1; Yuvraj 9-1-48-0; Pathan 4-0-23-1; Raina 1-0-4-0.

India: M. Vijay b Vettori 33; G. Gambhir (not out) 138; V. Kohli c Taylor b McKay 64; Yuvraj Singh (not out) 16; Extras (w-8) 8. Total (for two wkts., in 43 overs) 259.

Fall of wickets: 1-87, 2-203.

New Zealand bowling: N. McCullum 9-0-37-0; Mills 7-0-49-0; McKay 7-0-59-1; Styris 3-0-20-0; Vettori 8-0-32-1; Southee 5-0-33-0; Williamson 4-0-29-0.

* * *

First ODI, Guwahati, November 28, 2010. India won by 40 runs.

India: M. Vijay c Hopkins b Tuffey 29; G. Gambhir c How b McKay 38; V. Kohli c How b McKay 105; Yuvraj Singh c Hopkins b Tuffey 42; S. Raina c How b Mills 13; Y. Pathan c Taylor b Mills 29; W. Saha c Hopkins b McKay 4; R. Ashwin c & b McKay 0; A. Nehra (run out) 0; S. Sreesanth c How b Mills 4; Munaf Patel (not out) 1; Extras (b-1, lb-1, w-8, nb-1) 11. Total (in 49 overs) 276.

Fall of wickets: 1-44, 2-92, 3-180, 4-220, 5-250, 6-256, 7-256, 8-257, 9-275.

New Zealand bowling: Mills 10-0-42-3; Tuffey 8-0-56-2; McKay 10-1-62-4; Elliott 5-0-24-0; N. McCullum 9-0-53-0; Styris 6-0-26-0; Williamson 1-0-11-0.

New Zealand: M. Guptill c Munaf b Ashwin 30; J. How c Vijay b Nehra 9; K. Williamson c Saha b Yuvraj 25; R. Taylor c Munaf b Ashwin 66; S. Styris c Pathan b Yuvraj 10; G. Elliott c Pathan b Sreesanth 5; D. Tuffey c Raina b Yuvraj 4; G. Hopkins c Pathan b Ashwin 16; N. McCullum c Gambhir b Sreesanth 35; K. Mills c Saha b Sreesanth 32; A. McKay (not out) 0; Extras (lb-1, w-3) 4. Total (in 45.2 overs) 236.

Fall of wickets: 1-32, 2-46, 3-113, 4-131, 5-136, 6-144, 7-157, 8-169, 9-236.

India bowling: Nehra 9-0-44-1; Sreesanth 5.2-0-30-3; Ashwin 10-1-50-3; Munaf 8-0-39-0; Yuvraj 10-0-43-3; Pathan 2-0-24-0; Raina 1-0-5-0.