YOU JUST knew something would give. For close to 15 minutes, a bunch of the New Zealand players had been kicking around an orange-coloured football in a most ungainly fashion, their target being mostly each other. Like it happens almost always in these cases, one of them, Tom Latham the culprit on this occasion, just got a little too excited and sent the ball flying over the boundary wall of the practice area at the ACA-VDCA Stadium. And while he then went about retrieving the ball, the rest of the team hooted and jeered in unison.
This was the final practice session of the tour for New Zealand. For a month-and-a-half they have crisscrossed the length and breadth of India, clocking a whopping 7524.4 kilometres to be exact. And it was understandable that the Kiwis were letting their hair down just for a bit. Nor was it surprising to hear the word ‘home-stretch’ being thrown around a lot as they warmed up on Friday.
They returned to their silly kick-long routine upon the ball’s return followed by even more goofiness. You could have mistaken them for a bunch of school-kids who were out on a picnic without adult supervision. There was also a lot of back-slapping mixed in with some boyish banter.
The spinners, like the front-benchers of a class, were having none of it though. For Ish Sodhi, Mitchell Santner and Anton Devcich didn’t waste any time in getting their act going in the nets. They stood at either end of the pitch and began bowling at each other, exchanging notes on trajectory and length with each delivery. And the spin unit didn’t seem too chuffed when their session was rudely interrupted by a rogue football that landed on top of their net. But they too then joined the rest of the party in a ‘cricket team warm-up routine’ version of sepak takraw before coach Mike Hesson gathered the troops around for a huddle. Then, it was down to serious business.
The Kiwis were in full-force on Friday unlike the Indians who chose to rest a number of their key players in what turned out to be an optional practice session. They are after all not just on a mission but on the cusp of achieving a feat that no other New Zealand team has managed to ever: winning a bilateral series on Indian soil. History beckons in the home-stretch.
A win on Saturday at Vizag is also vital for Kane Williamson’s young team at the end of what has been an overall tumultuous tour. They were whitewashed 3-0 and pretty much outplayed in the Test series despite a few bright spots. If they fail to seal the ODI series, their two impressive wins – in the second and fourth ODIs – would more or less be forgotten.
A win though will set them up perfectly for what is a busy home season. In less than three weeks they take on the in-form Pakistan in a two-Test series followed by three ODIs. That is before Australia and South Africa come calling.
It’s also been a tour where New Zealand have pretty much rotated the same bunch of players across the two formats, meaning that most of them have been on this Indian expedition for the whole haul. But it was Tim Southee, who was a notable absentee during the Tests owing to injury, who summed up the mood in his camp the best when he said, “I think the guys are pretty excited to do what no other New Zealand side has ever done before. It’s been a long tour for some guys and it’ll be nice to finish what’s been a tough tour on a high note.”
With seven wickets, Southee has been the key enforcer with the ball so far, but the spinners have earned their right to have their own little coterie during practice sessions, like we saw on the eve of the fifth ODI. Santner has by far been the most economical specialist spinner — we can spare Kedar Jadhav that qualification for now — across both sides, and it was his spell aided of course by Sodhi’s early dismissal of Virat Kohli that paved the way for the Kiwis levelling the series in Ranchi. And it’s likely that the duo will be aided by Devcich’s flat variety of left-arm spin at the ACA-VDCA Stadium on Sunday. Incidentally, a number of those in the playing XI will be no strangers to the venue having spent close to three weeks here as part of a New Zealand A tour back in 2013.
A vital game for MS
Speaking of home-stretches, it’s safe to say that MS Dhoni is in one as well. This will be his final official international cricket commitment for the year. He made the most of his time at the nets with an extensive session. He first defended against a number of colourful rubber-balls being thrown at him —maybe a giveaway to what could be a spongy pitch in Vizag. He proceeded to spend more than 15-minutes each facing spin and pace separately. He then returned to the spin net to practice his sweep shots and indulge in a discussion about what lengths to play them off in the company of Kedar Jadhav. Overall he spent most of India’s ‘light’ practice session in the nets gearing up for one final international outing in 2016.
A win on Saturday is more vital for Dhoni than most of the 22 players involved in the contest. It’s been over two years since India won an ODI series of note — though they did make it to the World Cup semifinals last year — and have lost series to almost everyone including Bangladesh. Dhoni did lead a second-string Indian team to a 3-0 win in Zimbabwe in June. And while at an individual level he has had a decent enough series with the bat, Dhoni knows better than anyone else that failure is not an option in Vizag.
He has the next four months to himself, and can do nothing about tongues wagging till February when England return from their Christmas break for three ODIs and three T20s. That will be India’s last limited-overs assignment before the Champions Trophy in England. And if New Zealand do create history here, it’s likely that the captaincy debate would have gone viral come February.
The same could be said about Jadhav and Manish Pandey, too. With spots still up for grabs in that batting line-up, they have so far not really pulled their weight with both averaging 25 respectively. Vizag could well be their one shot at glory and nothing helps you cement your place like a big knock in a ‘final’.
“We need to grab whatever opportunity is thrown at us. We need to learn quickly from the opportunities we have missed. That’s what international cricket is all about – delivering when it matters most to the team,” said Jadhav.
Having said all that, the Indian sojourn could still well end on an anti-climactic note with the forecast of rain adding to the intrigue. While the city witnessed a torrential downpour on Thursday night, Friday was pretty dry with news floating in that Cyclone Kyant wasn’t so keen anymore on hitting the shores of Andhra. That meant that the ground-staff didn’t have to bother about keeping the pitch under covers and what was on view was a brown surface, which at face value looked good for runs. “Scattered Thunderstorms” is what the forecast looks like for Saturday. What is worrying is that the thunderstorms are predicted to come at 12 pm and 3 pm, which could have a major impact on the match. It may bring Duckworth-Lewis into the picture.
But with so much at stake it’s unlikely that either Williamson or Dhoni will be too bothered about how they get there. All that will matters will be the result — a win at all costs.