On the face of it, a bilateral T20 International fixture is basically a lightweight event. And while the final T20 between New Zealand and India at Seddon Park in Hamilton on Sunday is the series decider, in isolation, it cannot match the grandiose of the two longer forms. And yet, from the visitors’ perspective, this match has a greater significance attached to it.
India started the twin tours of Australia and New Zealand with a T20 international in Brisbane on November 21 last year. They are rounding it off with another T20 in Hamilton. Over the course of a little over two-and-a-half months, they have achieved unprecedented success. It has, indeed, been a glorious Southern summer for India that saw them win the Test and ODI series in Australia and also clinch the five-match ODI series in New Zealand quite comprehensively. The three-match T20 series in Australia had ended in a 1-1 stalemate, because the second game in Melbourne was rained off, with the Aussies reeling on 132/7 after 19 overs. India are yet to lose a series during this tour Down Under and a victory in Hamilton would be a memorable way to cap off the summer.
Throughout the tour, India have thrived on resilience. After losing the second Test in Australia and surrendering the advantage, they bounced back to win at the MCG and went on to take the rubber. Then, after losing the first ODI in Sydney, they rallied to win the next two matches to annex the trophy. In New Zealand also, the way they came back in the fifth ODI in Wellington after being bowled out for 92 in the previous one in Hamilton, spoke volumes about the team’s character. In the first T20I, India were hammered. Once again, they fought back to win the second game and square the series. “It’s going to be a cracker of a game in Hamilton,” stand-in captain Rohit Sharma has promised.
Nine days ago, when India had faced New Zealand at Seddon Park, Trent Boult made the new-ball talk and scythed through the opposition top-order. Conditions assisted swing and also, seam movement. The venue, however, has a history opening its heart to the batsmen for T20 fixtures. In February last year — the previous T20 international at this venue — England had gotten over the line by the skin of their teeth, defending 194. New Zealand lost by two runs despite Colin Munro’s 21-ball 57, with seven sixes. But even on a batting-friendly surface, India will depend on their bowlers. Bowlers are the real architects of this golden run. On odd occasions like the first T20I at Westpac Stadium, when they leaked runs, the team suffered.
In the T20 series opener, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Khaleel Ahmed, the two new-ball bowlers, had conceded 95 runs between them in eight overs for two wickets. Krunal Pandya had given away 37 runs in his four overs and barely looked in good rhythm. Change would have been the easier option for the team management, but they stuck to the same combination for the second match. Both Khaleel and Krunal responded brilliantly at Eden Park, with the left-arm quick getting two wickets and the left-arm spinner bagging three and also, the Man-of-the-Match award.
On a Hamilton featherbed, India, however, could be tempted to go with an extra bowler. Kuldeep Yadav had mesmerised the Kiwis in the one-dayers, but he sat out in the first two T20Is. With Krunal coming at No. 8, India probably are going with one batsman too many for a 20-over-a-side contest. Vijay Shankar batted at No. 4 in the first game and then at No. 3 in the second T20I. And for a batting allrounder, he hasn’t bowled yet in this series.
This is the 50-over World Cup year and from that perspective, performance in white-ball cricket could have a bearing in the final squad selection, notwithstanding the fact that this is the shortest format of the game. A couple of places in the ODI batting order are still unsettled and the likes of Shankar and Rishabh Pant would be keen to impress. A 28-ball 40 not out in the last match helped Pant get into the groove. The left-hander arrived in New Zealand a little undercooked – just two List A matches, against England Lions, after the Test series in Australia. It was impressive the way the 21-year-old gradually grew into the game in Auckland.
Pant batted at No. 3, coming on the heels of a fantastic 79-run opening partnership between Rohit and Shikhar Dhawan. It took the pressure off the youngster. India will once again depend on the opening duo to provide the platform. In Virat Kohli’s absence, they shoulder an even bigger responsibility.
As the stand-in skipper, Rohit so far boasts of an all-win record, starting from the Nidahas Trophy in Sri Lanka in March last year followed by the Asia Cup in Dubai and the home T20s against West Indies. A win tomorrow will extend the streak.
As for New Zealand, their selector Gavin Larsen today said in a statement that Martin Guptill would return for the upcoming ODIs against Bangladesh. The opener missed the ongoing T20s due to a back injury. As for the present, the Kiwis will bank on Munro and Tim Seifert for a top-order blast.
Live on Star Sports 1 & 3: 12:30 pm onwards