In the 33rd over of India’s chase, with the asking rate shooting up with every passing ball like a tampered taxi-meter, Mahendra Singh Dhoni made room and hit Nathan McCullum towards long off and scurried off. As he was coming back for the second run, Matt Henry’s throw from the deep caught him flush in the back. It must have hurt but Dhoni returned to the crease with a smile.
It was the softest blow that Matt Henry landed on the India captain on Friday evening. By that point, the fast bowler had accounted for three of India’s four batsmen — Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane and Ambati Rayudu — to knock the wind out of the visitor’s sails. He would take one more wicket, that of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and finish with figures of 4 for 38. All this, the 22-year-old achieved in his debut game.
His was one of the key performances on the night, along side those of usual suspects Ross Taylor, who hit another century, and Kane Williamson, who smashed yet another half century, as NZ blanked world champions India 4-0 with a comprehensive 87-run victory in the fifth and final ODI on Friday. It’s a performance that will surely rank alongside their best results in recent times — such as their 3-0 win in the 2006-07 Chappell-Hadlee Trophy over the then world beaters, Australia.
Captain Brendon McCullum, who was part of that memorable series, rated his team’s latest triumph even higher. “From an ODI point of view, this series is the most satisfying I have been a part of. India arrived here as the No.1 team and not many expected us to compete with them, let alone get a series whitewash. We are delighted with the way we played in this series, especially on the back of fine performances from Ross and Kane, and also the way the bowlers stepped up. Over all it’s a groundbreaking series for us,” he said after the match.
For India, this defeat must be humbling, not just because of the aggressive posturing by their board off the field. The South Africa tour was always going to be a tough affair, therefore the defeats there didn’t rankle as much. But New Zealand? Weren’t they supposed to roll over against India’s mighty bats, on pitches which have become decidedly flatter over the years?
To be fair, the pitch at the Westpac Stadium wasn’t really a batting paradise. The boundaries were far — not just by New Zealand standards — therefore fours and sixes were hard to come by. The pitch was on the slower side but still had a greenish tinge to it. However, it was the Indians who got to have a crack at it first as Dhoni won his fifth toss and went back to fielding first again.
It was more or less predictable. But what was surprising, even though it was an inconsequential match as the series was already lost, was that Dhoni managed to find no place for experiments in this ODI, and therefore no place whatsoever for leg-spinner Amit Mishra or medium-pacer Ishwar Pandey in the XI.
“Regarding Ishwar Pandey, we thought that there is some more work needed on his bowling before he can be tried, but this exposure has been very good for him,” Dhoni later explained. “And we wanted Ashwin’s batting. The one match that was tied was because of his batting performance, so that is why we backed Ashwin (over Mishra).” Rather than looking forward, therefore, India took a couple of steps back. And pride took precedence over common sense.
Initially, the Indian bowlers seemed to justify Dhoni’s faith as they came up with their finest opening-overs performance of the series. Mohammed Shami began with a maiden and went on to bowl a spell that Glenn McGrath would’ve been proud of — 5-3-11-0. Bhuvneshwar too troubled the batsmen with his movement and gave India the breakthrough when he induced an edge off Jesse Ryder’s bat.
Varun Aaron accounted for Martin Guptill as New Zealand, 41 for two in the 13th over, were staring down the barrel. Which was when Taylor and Williamson took over and took the game away from India, with a run-a-ball partnership of 152 — their third century-plus stand in the series. The pair flayed the medium pacers and played the spinners with authority to bring up, respectively, the fifth successive fifty and the second consecutive hundred of the series. Once the platform was set, NZ’s hitters took the score to 303. In his last five, Shami went for 50.
India’s chase started in a manner very similar to the New Zealand innings. Kyle Mills and Mitchell McClenaghan offered little space to the India openers, who got out trying to hit their way out of trouble. India were 20-2 in 10 overs. Unlike New Zealand, however, India couldn’t produce a big partnership. Only Virat Kohli was batting in a different zone to the rest of the players.
Once Kohli was out, after making a 78-ball 82, in the 37th over, the match was over for all practical purposes. Dhoni made 47, but it came off 72 balls as his trademark late charge never really came. Ashwin, who was picked in this game for his batting prowess, made 7 of 11 when the team needed upwards of 12-an-over.
The innings died a slow, agonising death as the visitors batted till the 50th over, often not even appearing to be concerned about runs, before Jimmy Neesham put Aaron and India out of their misery.
In the end, India lost more than a match as they let go of a chance to experiment. And they didn’t even win back pride.