Wearied and knackered, Virat Kohli plunged onto a wooden chair on the patio of the Carrus pavilion at the end of the match. Beside him, stood a few of his equally weary colleagues and support staff. At the other side of the pavilion, demarcated by a tiny aisle with an ornate carpet, the New Zealand cricketers were exchanging hugs and bright smiles.
The last time both teams were here, the scenes were symmetrical opposite.The Indians were exuberantly celebrating their 5-0 triumph while the New Zealand enclosure was draped in mourning. Little would either team have foreboded that at the exact venue a week later, the emotions would vastly different. India punched New Zealand 5-0 in the T20Is; the hosts counter-punched the visitors 3-0.
Two whitewashes each—if this were a best of three tennis game spread across different surfaces, the two-Test series would provide an intriguing finale. India won the hard-court leg, New Zealand the clay-surface test. Beckons now the examination on grass.
A perfunctory glance at the results would convince the cricketing world that New Zealand are a poor T20 side but a terrific ODI team. The opposite could hold true for India. But neither assumptions could be further from the truth. New Zealand aren’t as bad a 20-over side as the log-book shows; neither are India a terrible 50-over unit as the scoreline blares.
Of the eight matches, at least five were closely fought, where the outcome could have gone either way. But the fact remains that India were ruthless in closing out close games in the T20Is, just as New Zealand were clinical in clutching the key phases in the ODIs. The disparity might not have been huge—this would hurt Kohli the most. That they were not out-run by a remorseless winning machine, but his own team let New Zealand out-muscle them. Such defeats leave men ruing than cussing.
It was not like the last time India were clean-swept, by a strong West Indies side in 1989. But by a side that was evenly-matched on paper but demonstrated more vigour and ambition. Maybe, for New Zealand, the recrimination after the successive Super Over losses instilled combativeness, the same trait that India had emblazoned under Kohli’s leadership.
“They played with a lot more intensity after the T20 series. They deservedly won 3-0, and we have to think about a lot of aspects of the game going forward,” Kohli admitted during the presentation ceremony, where a faint smile replaced his grimness.
One of it could be fielding, which on Friday was a throwback to the 80s. It was as if the balmy wind had injected lethargy into the Indian fielders. Suddenly, they were slow to dive around and intersect the boundaries, lethargic in aborting the stealthy singles and twos, reluctant to anything barely adventurous, and inaccurate and wasteful with their throws, especially from the inner circle. Insidiously, they let off the pressure. Such glaring sloppiness was uncharacteristic of modern-day Indian sides, with renewed emphasis on fitness drills and spot-specific fielding. Several times, Kohli lost his composure. He gestured animatedly as Navdeep Saini for not attacking a miscued ball that fell inches short of him. Saini had barely moved from his spot at square leg.
Kohli had no doubts whatsoever that fielding made the biggest difference between the two teams. “All three games, the composure and the way we fielded wasn’t good enough for international cricket. The way we came back was a positive for us. In the field, we weren’t good enough at all,” he said. Later, Yuzvendra Chahal seconded his captain. “We didn’t put enough effort on the field,” he complained. His grouse was legitimate, as each time he piled on the pressure, the fielders would make some faux pas and release it. His pleas to the deep-fielders to attack the ball more would go unheeded.
Prithvi Shaw symbolised the fielding ineptitude. The run out was comical, in that he hardly accelerated in the home stretch. It was far from a guillotine throw, but he was so slow that Tom Latham had enough time to gather the ball and affect the run out. And Shaw was caught at least a foot away from the crease. Later, he mistimed a half-hearted leap at the boundary. It might have been a difficult catch, but he could have easily intervened and prevented a six.
Not just immobile fielding, the other typical 90s pangs too resurfaced. Like a bunch of confused openers. Both Shaw and Agarwal made their ODI debuts in this series, but neither of them hardly looked the part. Agarwal, supremely judicious in Tests, has been unusually jumpy and fidgety. Shaw would let the rush of blood moments rein over him. The absence of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma was acutely felt. But then, he could’t complain much about injuries New Zealand had Kane Williamson injured for the first two ODIs, besides long-term absentees Trent Boult and Lockie Ferguson.
Kohli’s own indifferent form—he managed only 75 runs this outings, the worst in any series in five years— worsened the crisis. Appallingly. he has been batting with an unprecedented recklessness. He batted bizarrely in Mount Maunganui. So early in the innings, he stepped out and heaved Tim Southee over long-on. It was a deliberately ploy to unsettle him after the bowler had successively beaten him. The method worked, but then he wasted his wicket will an ill-opportune slash. For yet again, India fumbled when one of big three (Kohli, Dhawan and Rohit) registered a big score. The flimsiness of the top-order was to an extent neutralised by the comeuppance of Kl Rahul and Shreyas Iyer. But down the order, they still lacked the firepower. A classic case unravelled on Tuesday, when India lost its momentum at the death. In the last 10, they eked out only 74 runs, which’s middling in this day and age, where the norm is getting between 90 and 100 runs.
Like death-over batting, bowling in the final stretch too is a concern. With Jasprit Bumrah a few rungs beneath his best, the deficiencies of Navdeep Saini and Shardul Thakur have been ruthlessly exposed. It could be that New Zealand conditions are difficult to master—with the odd ground dimensions and the sustained wind. But they blew away an opportunity to stake their claims. Thakur, for his recently-developed variations, was wayward. Saini’s nerves flapped in extreme pressure situations. Consequently, the leaked 87 in the last in Hamilton, 48 in the last five in Auckland, and 72 in the last seven in Mount Maunganui.
All of these ate into Kohli, who was a distraught man by the end of the series. By the end of the game, he was sneering and scowling, and mocking his own fielders. Typically, it reflected on his fretfulness on the field. He could take consolation from the fact that no significant 50-over series is on the horizon. But the rebuilding process since the World Cup has been stuttering. The gripping No 4 issue has been solved, but more concerns have surfaced, which if not redressed could potentially hamper their ambitions of 50-over supremacy.
The immediate concern, though, would be the looming Test series. But Kohli, like New Zealand’s stand-in skipper Tim Southee, averred that his team would carry no baggages into the five-day games. But for now, he had only so much energy left in him to plunge onto the chair. Weary and knackered.