After an ‘extraordinary’ 2018, it was all but a formality that Virat Kohli would sweep the ICC Awards. The India captain winning the Sir Garfield Sobers Trophy for the ICC Cricketer of the Year, the ICC Men’s Test Player of the Year and the ICC ODI Player of the Year awards came on the heels of his 1,322 runs in 13 Tests at an average of 55.08 with five centuries, and 1,202 runs in 14 ODIs at 133.55, with six centuries in the calendar year. He is the first ever player to clinch the ICC treble. That he scored the majority of those runs overseas – South Africa, England and Australia – added further gloss to his performance. He also ended the year consolidating his No. 1 rankings in both Tests and ODIs.
This was a personal triumph for cricket’s biggest contemporary superstar. “It feels amazing. It’s a reward for all the hard work that you do throughout the calendar year. I feel really grateful and very, very happy with the team doing well at the same time myself performing. Having recognition at the global level from the ICC is something you feel proud of as a cricketer because you understand that there are many players playing the game.
“To be rewarded in this manner from amongst all of them is obviously a very proud moment for me and something that gives you more motivation to keep repeating the same things because you have to keep the standard of cricket up and keep bringing in consistent performances. From that point of view, these awards give you that extra motivation,” Kohli said after the announcement.
The game’s poster boy, however, knows that circa 2019 presents a bigger challenge. Given India’s obsession with the World Cup, Kohli’s team this year would be defined by their performance in the quadrennial showpiece, which is a little over four months away. From that perspective, the five ODIs in New Zealand and the home series against Australia that follows are the final opportunities to plug the gaps. An unsettled middle order – Nos. 4 and 5 – is an area of concern. Hardik Pandya’s ‘misconduct’, and his subsequent ouster from the Indian team pending inquiry, has created a void with regard to playing a specialist seam-bowling all-rounder.
Only a few days ago, the Indian team celebrated its first-ever bilateral ODI series win in Australia. The Aussies, sans Steve Smith and David Warner, were lightweight, batting-wise. But New Zealand are a different kettle of fish. In their 10 home ODI series since the 2015 World Cup, the Kiwis have completed six clean sweeps. Of late, they have been posting 300-plus totals for fun.
New Zealand have all bases covered. At No. 3 in the ICC ODI rankings, they breathe down the No. 2-ranked India’s neck. This series would be a battle of equals. “Just in terms of the whole balance of the side, I think they (New Zealand) are probably one of the most balanced teams in world cricket and that’s going to be the biggest challenge for us,” Kohli said on the match eve.
The Napier climate revels in its mood swings. At McLean Park, the venue for the first ODI, things are predictable in terms of high scores. It’s usually a 300-plus ground, chiefly because the side boundaries are short. Cricket doesn’t have exclusivity over the grounds in New Zealand. Rugby is the country’s national sport and when the grounds are used for cricket, the angles become a tad unusual.
Kohli said as much, elaborating on how the bowlers need to adjust to the dimension of the field to be successful. “Scoring areas; you have to be aware of the side boundaries, usually being very short in most of the grounds. So targeting the right areas of the ground becomes very important. But I think the bowlers require more composure here, in terms of which are the shots that you want the batsmen to play, so you have the best chance of getting them out or restricting those boundaries.
“Look, playing in New Zealand unless the wicket is really green and it’s doing a lot with the new ball, it’s always a place where the bowlers have to figure out which are the areas that they can contain boundaries and which are the areas that they can force the batsmen to hit so that they can get them out. And I think the team that does that well usually ends up winning in a place like New Zealand, purely because of the dimensions of the field.”
In Pandya’s absence, India fielded three seamers in the first two ODIs in Australia. It was a stopgap measure. Vijay Shankar played the third ODI in Melbourne and chipped in with six overs of seam-up bowling. To strike the right balance, an all-rounder is needed. Kohli spoke about how the ideal bowling combination “depends on the all-rounder”. Shankar would be a serious value addition if he can offer the balance.
As for the No. 4 spot in the batting order, MS Dhoni played there at the MCG and scored a match-winning 87 not out. The former captain left Australia with a batting average of 193 from three ODIs. It needs to be seen if Dhoni, who now prefers to play second fiddle during the early part of his innings, sticks to his slow build-up method on flat pitches, against 300-plus totals. Kohli, by the way, has asked his team “not to panic”, for 300 is usually the par score in New Zealand.