India Vs NZ: Kohli and Co. need smartness more than bluster & bravado

The men in blue face the unenviable task of putting it past the Kiwis in a World Cup of any ilk for the first time since 2003

How gainfully India have spent the week between their two weekend contests will decide what Sunday’s outcome will be. Pic: PTI

The end of the most celebrated streak in World Cup history has come with immediate repercussions. India’s 10-wicket drubbing at the hands of Pakistan last Sunday seems like a long time back, for so much has happened in the T20 World Cup subsequently. Virat Kohli’s men must buck an 18-year trend against New Zealand this Sunday (October 31) if they are to be the masters of their own destiny.

Their 12-match winning run against Pakistan emphatically snapped, India face the unenviable task of putting it past the Kiwis in a World Cup of any ilk for the first time since 2003. Not since their excellent win in Centurion at the 50-over event have India bested New Zealand in World Cups. The Kiwis have won all three matches subsequently, the semifinal success at the 50-over World Cup in England in 2019 being the most recent.

New Zealand have laid India low in their two T20 World Cup showdowns. Defeat to the Kiwis at the Wanderers was the only loss for Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men on their way to a surprise triumph at the 2007 edition, while more chastening was the spin-influenced 47-run pounding handed out by Kane Williamson’s men in 2016. That it came in Nagpur, with India chasing 127 and being bundled out for 79 – spin accounted for nine of the ten wickets – was particularly humbling. The first-game defeat left India’s campaign hanging by a slender thread until Virat Kohli orchestrated a special revival which was only snuffed out by eventual champions West Indies in the semifinal in Mumbai.

As if to extend their hegemony over India in ICC tournaments, the Kiwis also toppled their Asian rivals in the final of the World Test Championship in Southampton this June. The weight of history thus is stacked heavily against the Indians, but if the past is any indication, this is exactly the kind of challenge that can lift this side out of its stupor.

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How gainfully India have spent the week between their two weekend contests will decide what Sunday’s outcome will be. Defeat will not usher India out of the competition, but their fate won’t be in their own hands thereafter. They will need to win their last three games – against Afghanistan, which is anything but a formality, and against qualifiers Scotland and Namibia – convincingly and hope for favourable upsets elsewhere to pitch their case. That’s not a comfortable position to be in. If India realistically aspire for a last-four berth, they must win on Sunday. Period.

New Zealand won’t play ball. They pride themselves on flying under the radar but land meaty punches so often that it’s a surprise they don’t attract as much favouritism as they ought to. Williamson is the epitome of New Zealand cricket – understated, supremely skilled, soft on the outside but with an inner steel that doesn’t come to many. India have been in enough scraps with the Kiwis to know that to get their first points of the competition, they will have to win the match because New Zealand won’t lose it for them.

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The long break between games should have given the Indian think-tank greater understanding of how the conditions have stacked up. Totals in the region of 160 have been rare as snow in the desert. Admittedly, the nature of the pitch will dictate what is par for the course, so to strike the judicious mix between conservatism and adventurism becomes imperative. The new ball is a batsman’s best ally, but there has been swing on offer for most teams and there are few better practitioners of that craft than Trent Boult. Already, India have been rocked by one left-arm swing bowler. Boult is far more experienced and rounded than Shaheen Shah Afridi, and he will repeatedly target the pads of his Mumbai Indians captain Rohit Sharma, who has a history of succumbing to the inswinger from a left-arm quick.

This tournament has again showcased the value of preserving – or picking up – wickets in the Powerplay. Overreach has been fatal because most teams batting first have lost two, sometimes three wickets in the first six overs and are then playing catch-up. The pitches have been too sluggish to facilitate uninhibited stroke-play at the death even with resources at hand, as West Indies have found out to their detriment twice now. Smartness more than bluster and bravado is the need of the hour. If that means dinking the ball into the long part of the ground and running twos repeatedly, that’s what the batsmen must target. That’s a more sensible, commonsensical option than blindly backing one’s ability to clear 80-metre boundaries when bowlers bang the ball into the deck and ask the batsmen to make their own pace.

Not for the first time, Kohli will hold the key. There is no better manipulator of the field than the Indian captain and it’s not unlikely that he will slip into the role of the anchor, allowing his deputy, KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant to bat with as much freedom as the lethargic tracks facilitate. Most interesting, though, will be how Hardik Pandya goes. The all-rounder who hasn’t bowled competitively since July, did turn his arm over at nets mid-week, and if he can slip in two overs, that will be a massive bonus. But more than his bowling, India need his spunk and spark at the finish.

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Kohli has reposed immense faith in Pandya, often referring to his heroics in Australia last November when he played the white-ball formats as a specialist batsman. Eleven months is a lifetime in international cricket; Pandya must repay his captain post-haste, just as the bowlers must show more teeth, purpose and intent if they are to make inroads into a dangerous New Zealand batting line-up.

Attrition more than entertainment will be the byword in Dubai. Whoever emerges unscathed from this guaranteed bruiser will have reason to believe the knockouts are within touching distance, even though Afghanistan lie in wait, desperate to play spoilsport.

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