New Zealand v India, ODI, Cake Tin, 3 February 2019
As I took my seat before the start of this game—the fifth and final of the series—I reflected that a little under four years ago from much the same spot I observed a hapless young West Indian captain fielding on the boundary in front of me, near the exit leading to the dressing rooms, his symbolic desire to get off the field as quickly as possible obvious and painful. It was the World Cup quarter-final and they had given him pop guns to deploy against the artillery of Martin Guptill, on his way to 237 not out.
So it was cheering to have started the day listening to radio commentary from Antigua of that same young captain—Jason Holder—leading the West Indies to a series victory over England, and performing so well with bat and ball. As I have written so often before, I owe much of my love of cricket to early exposure to Caribbean cricketers, who made it look such a joyful and thrilling way to pass the time. That they are on their way back is the best news.
As we all know, Holder missed the final test, suspended for not hurrying up the bowling sufficiently for the match to finish earlier than the last session of the third day. I recall Backwatersman writing that he is never aware of how fast or slowly the overs are being bowled, and isn’t much concerned about it. I’m the same. Without looking at the scoreboard, I have no idea, at lunch say, how many overs have been bowled in the session just concluded. You might as well fine a river for reaching the sea tardily. Imagine if blame-the-captain justice had been in operation in the seventies. The Yorkshire team would have moved like statues so as to get rid of Boycott for a couple of games.
I have enjoyed the Talk Sport commentary from the West Indies (in New Zealand we have no TV coverage of the series, so the radio is not geoblocked). It gets the job done, has some interesting features and is not as self-regarding as Test Match Special. Mark Nicholas is one of the best broadcasters around, as long as he is not in Australia. For a posh Pom without an international cricket pedigree he did well to front Channel Nine’s coverage for a decade or so, but the Devil (played by Kerry Packer, born to the role) demanded as his price that Nicholas had to worship Australia and all things Australians with an enthusiasm that in comparison made Dame Edna Everage look no more a patriot than Germaine Greer.
The defeat in the West Indies has shaken England’s recent confidence in itself as a test team, despite the consolation win in the final test. This one-day series against India has had much the same effect on New Zealand’s self-perception in this form of the game. It began with New Zealand ranked third in ODIs, after a comfortable three-nil win against Sri Lanka (and we know how misleading three-nil wins against Sri Lanka can be). India would be tougher test of course, but New Zealand would be competitive; a close three-two defeat, like that against England last year, was thought the worst that could happen. So the three drubbings that were the first three games sent the cricketing nation into deep introspection.
I noted during that England series that New Zealand’s strategy appeared to rely on one player, probably Williamson or Taylor, to play a world-class innings, and that this had been surprisingly successful. The solid contributions across the top half of the order that are the more conventional basis for success did not happen last year or this, but this time were not compensated for by a cricketing Popeye with his tin of spinach. The second-highest individual New Zealand scores in the first two games were 24 and 34, the third-highest in the third 28.
Like England’s test team, the problems start at the top of the order. Martin Guptill is out of form, but the hope is that class will out. Colin Munro has been his partner for a while. A dominating batsman in T20s, his technique has become exposed over 50 overs. In T20 he is bold, in ODIs he is bowled.
Henry Nicholls was moved up to open in the fourth game. Here, My Life in Cricket Scorecards boasts its first exclusive in nine years, or as close to one as it likely to get. I fell into conversation with the guy two seats along, who, it turned out, was Nicholls’ father. I can reveal that Henry is very happy to open, relishing the challenge, and would be equally happy to be reserve keeper in the World Cup squad, having kept proficiently throughout his early career. This seems the sensible way to go, better than the selectors managing to persuade themselves that Tim Seifert is good enough to take a batting slot.
New Zealand Cricket backed Nicholls’ talent early and have been vindicated. His test average is 43 and climbing. Though his ODI record is more patchy, he is more likely to offer long-term consistency than any other available candidate. It was good to hear that he has a positive team’s-needs view of his ability (cf Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and the No 3 position).
For the first three games, Munro was the sixth bowler, but he is more a seventh bowler, a Graham Gooch-style dobber (those of us who were there have never got over the disaster that was making a fifth bowler from a combination of Gooch, Boycott and Larkins in the World Cup final of ’79). In these bat-dominated times, captains need six bowlers capable of bowling a full allocation if they are to respond properly to events.
Nicholls’ promotion to the top of the order allowed this to happen, but India’s collapse for 93 in the fourth game was, from the selectoral point of view, the worst thing that could have happened, as the recalled Todd Astle and Jimmy Neesham bowled fewer than three overs between them, no test at all.
It was five for 21 from Trent Boult that undid India in game four, which told us nothing new. Boult apart, the selection of the bowlers has been subject to rotation throughout this series. Boult takes the quaint view that the best way of maintaining form and fitness to bowl at international level is to bowl at international level, and has the mana (a useful Maori word meaning respect and status) to stand aside from the rota.
This fifth game was New Zealand’s last chance before the World Cup to test players against top opposition. Three-match series at home to Bangladesh and away to Ireland follow, but against lower-grade opposition a moderate player can do well and be difficult to drop. New Zealand should by now know what their World Cup squad will be, but have at least four bowling/all-rounder places that are undecided. Here, Henry, Neesham, Astle and Munro (back in for the injured Guptill) might be regarded as in the selectoral repecharges, with Bracewell, Ferguson and Southee also contending. The inclusion of Southee in this list will probably surprise overseas readers, but his one-day stats have been going downhill since the last World Cup. He is said to be in the rotation, but appears to be following the orbit round the sun of Pluto, so rarely is he seen.
India are without Virat Kholi, who took a break after the third game and is on holiday elsewhere in New Zealand, and Jasprit Bumrah. Giving these two key players a rest is wise, but a disappointment for those of us who were looking forward to watching two of the current World XI. However, MS Dhoni had recovered from the injury that kept him out of the fourth game, so giving us almost certainly a last chance to see him in an ODI in New Zealand.
India won the toss and elected to bat on a pitch of uneven colour, though nothing like the lunar surface that produced such a good game against England last year. Then, 234 was, just, a winning score. In the tenth over, at 18 for four, this seemed beyond India’s dreams.
Matt Henry conceded just two runs from his first two overs, then knocked back Sharma’s off stump with killer late outswing reminiscent of Southee from the same end against England in the World Cup.
In the next over, Henry was at third man to take the catch when Darwan lashed out at a short one from Boult, a reward for both opening bowlers for keeping it so tight early on.
This brought together the tyro Shubman Gill and the old master Dhoni. Looking back at the scorecard in 20 years’ time it might be a curiosity to find them both together in the same XI. Gill played one sumptuous off drive that had “promise” written through it like “Blackpool” in a stick of rock, but was then caught at short cover, pushing leaden-footed at a Henry delivery that didn’t come on as he expected.
Those of us hoping for something magnificent from Dhoni on his farewell were to be disappointed, though it would be a fair description of the Boult inswinger that uprooted his off stump.
Rayudu and Shankar set about rebuilding. They must have made a astute estimate of what a winning score would be and realised that they did not need to go for 300 at all costs. Wicket preservation was the priority, so that sufficient reserves were in place for the final charge. They put on 98 for the fifth wicket in 22 overs before Shankar went to a Brexit of a run out: no plan, utter confusion and no majority for any course of action.
Surprisingly, Williamson opted to put Munro on ahead of Astle, who would have wanted the opportunity to make his case for the second spinner’s spot (assuming that Santner has the first because of the balance he offers). Superficially, it was the right decision. Munro bowled straight through, conceding 47 from ten (and that included two sixes in his last over). But he didn’t take a wicket, and didn’t look likely to. Rayudu in particular used him like a life raft to navigate to a secure position. The run out apart, no wicket fell between the tenth and 44th overs, when Rayudu fell ten short of a deserved hundred.
The key to success in contemporary ODI cricket is to take enough wickets through the innings so as to limit the potential of the batting side to explode with runs in the last ten overs. Their failure to build upon an excellent start to do this cost New Zealand the game.
Hardik Pandya led the charge in the final overs with five sixes in his 45, three of them off consecutive deliveries from Astle. India finished with 252.
Matt Henry performed the best of the bowling auditionees, finishing with four for 35 from ten, almost enough to get him on the plane. Todd Astle was only given five overs finishing with nought for 35, so it was a day when Ish Sodhi did better by not playing.
Television companies might consider adapting one of those endless property restoration programmes to New Zealand cricket. “This is Kane. My, the innings is in a sorry state. Can he apply a bit of paint and bang in a few nails in the right places to rescue it?”. Today, it was 38 for three in the eleventh over, Nicholls, an unconvincing Munro and Taylor gone.
Williamson looked out-of-sorts at first, making only five from his first 24 deliveries, but the first two balls of the 18th over, bowled by Shankar, went for silky, feather-light fours, the first a cut, the second a straight drive. The partnership with Latham advanced, mostly in singles, until it reached 66, parity almost restored.
Williamson then miscalculated in a way that he rarely does, attempting to pull Jadhav over the mid-wicket boundary, only to provide an easy catch. With the required rate only just above six, there was no need to interrupt the steady flow of singles at that stage.
Latham was also out swinging across the line, lbw to Chahal. De Grandhomme followed a couple of overs later, a couple of handsome fours impressing les than the ability to work the ball around for a while would have done.
At 135 for six, much now depended upon Jimmy Neesham. Like De Grandhomme’s, his ability to crash and bash is unquestioned, but has he the repertoire for all occasions? This innings provided a good deal of evidence that he does. There were big shots, including two sixes, both over mid-wicket from deliveries that were ripe for the purpose. On 44 from 32 balls, 77 needed at under six an over, he had put New Zealand back into a position of near-equality.
“What happened next?” is a question that Neesham will wake up in the middle of the night for decades to come trying to answer, without being able to. Swinging across the line to Jadhav, he was hit on the front pad. There was a loud appeal, but the impact was clearly outside the line of off. The ball hit Dhoni’s leg and trickled a few feet behind the stumps. A couple of steps and it was in the keeper’s gloves. But Neesham had set off for a single, and had no chance of getting back before the stumps were broken. Had Santner set off from the non-striker’s end, the old cliché “they wouldn’t have crossed” would, for once, have been absolutely accurate.
A few big blows from Matt Henry notwithstanding, that was it, a 35-run defeat, New Zealand left with an uncomfortable number of uncertainties about form, selection and prospects with no more games against top-level teams before the World Cup.
There was a good turnout form the local Indian community, who brought to the occasion a generous exuberance that reminded me of the Caribbean crowds at Lord’s and (in particular) the Oval in the 1970s.