New Zealand’s dressing room in the innings break during the first One-Day International against India must have been a sombre place. At least, it was hard to imagine it being any other way.
The Black Caps lost all five matches in the recently-concluded T20 International series. Ahead of India’s tour, the talk revolved around the Test series and how it would pose a tough challenge for the visitors. But surely, no one could have predicted such a one-sided result in the shortest format. It was the first whitewash in a five-match series in T20I cricket history.
It seemed to get from bad to worse for the New Zealand team in Hamilton on Wednesday. Skipper Tom Latham won the toss and, to the surprise of many, elected to field first. He reckoned the Seddon Park was a difficult venue to defend on. But with India hammering 347 runs, on the back of a masterful partnership between Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul, Latham’s decision seemed to be a big mistake.
There wasn’t much reason to bet against another Indian victory at that time. The visitors looked relaxed as they took the field after the innings break. Their skipper Virat Kohli even burst into a jig before the team huddle. His team had done the job with the bat and their opponents hadn’t put up particularly inspiring performances in recent chases.
New Zealand’s backs were well and truly against the wall. However, just as one thought they would go down without a fight, they put up a performance that has breathed life into not only the ODI series but the entire tour.
To have any chance of a victory, New Zealand had to ensure they did two things – not lose early wickets and have multiple partnerships. And they did just that. Their chase was built around three key partnerships.
Both Martin Guptill and Henry Nicholls are aggressive openers. Chasing such a mammoth total could have easily prompted them to go hell for leather from ball one. But they played cautiously in the first powerplay and gave respect to the swing-friendly conditions. In fact, Guptill’s first boundary only came off the 35th delivery he faced.
Guptill and Nicholls added 85 runs for the first wicket. Their partnership wasn’t blazing but it set a good platform to build on. More importantly, though, it showed that New Zealand hadn’t given up. That they were in for the fight.
With Guptill perishing in the 16th over and Tom Blundell soon after, the hosts needed 239 runs to win off 185 balls. Ross Taylor was the next man in and he had a point to prove. The veteran had failed to close out three chases in a row in the T20I series and with Kane Williamson not playing, a lot depended on him.
Taylor didn’t panic, though. He got together with Nicholls and took his time to settle in. The duo nudged India’s spinners Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav around and kept their team in the contest. Nicholls got run-out in the 29th over, thanks to a moment of sheer brilliance by Kohli, but he had done his job by then. After seeing out the new ball, the left-hander had carried on and allowed Taylor to find his feet.
The third big partnership was the one in which New Zealand made their move. When captain Latham came to the crease, his team needed 177 off 129 balls with seven wickets in hand. In the era of T20 cricket, this wasn’t an impossible proposition. But the margin for error was slim.
Latham, though, seemed to be immune to the pressure. He took the game by the scruff of its neck and played his shots from the get-go. The sweep shot, one of his favourties, was used to brilliant effect and India’s bowlers didn’t know what hit them. Latham went on to score a 48-ball 69, with Kohli later admitting that the knock took the momentum away from his team.
What Nicholls and Latham’s innings did was allow Taylor to play at a comfortable pace. The right-hander wasn’t forced to play a rash shot and remained unbeaten on 109 off 84 to guide his team to a memorable victory.
“Tom came in and released the pressure off me,” Taylor said after the match. “It was nice to be there at the end after I got out thrice towards the end in the T20 series.”
New Zealand’s gritty fightback is important in more ways than one. They were blanked in the Test series in Australia at the start of the year and the scoreline of the T20I series against India made them hit rock bottom. A one-sided win on Wednesday wouldn’t have helped as much as the determined effort by a number of players will.
This may be a T20 World Cup year but the focal point of India’s tour of New Zealand has always been the two-Test series. Kohli and Co have been indomitable at home but playing red-ball cricket in New Zealand has never been an easy task for India.
The hosts’ performance in the first ODI provides a shot in the arm to them. With the likes of Williamson, Trent Boult and Lockie Ferguson set to return soon, the Black Caps remain a world-class unit that can beat any team. To keep this tour alive, all they need is belief.