New Zealand ODI series the true test of India's 2019 World Cup ambitions

Ashish Peter 21/01/2019
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The ICC World Cup is on Virat Kohli's mind.

Confidence is brimming in India’s ODI outfit as they get ready to take on hosts New Zealand in a five-match series beginning at Napier on Wednesday.

Virat Kohli and his men were convincing if not spectacular in their recent 2-1 win over New Zealand’s Trans-Tasman rivals Australia. However, the Blackcaps will prove a much tougher nut to crack in their backyard for the Men in Blue and will present a test greater by several degrees compared to their Aussie counterparts.

With the ICC World Cup in England coming up in less than four months, all teams are busy preparing their respective ODI squads for the showpiece event. Two-time champions India will rightly be one of the favourites for the crown on the basis of their recent limited-overs form.

Their greatest threat in the quest for a third crown will most likely come from hosts England who have been flying in the ODI format for some time now with their array of all-rounders and are deservedly ranked at No1.

While England and India will be the frontrunners, the Blackcaps are not too far behind. The Kiwis have historically punched above their weight at the international level and are currently the most competitive team going around on all surfaces and in all formats.

They have shown an ability to adapt quickly to foreign conditions in the ODI format and gave both India and Pakistan a scare in their backyards last year. At home, the Kiwis are as dominant a team as any, as shown by their series clean sweeps over West Indies, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the past 12 months.

Only one team – England – has been able to topple Williamson’s men in New Zealand in this period. Eoin Morgan’s men eked out a 3-2 win over the Kiwis during their tour in March last year.

New Zealand are in red hot form currently.

New Zealand are in red hot form currently.

If India are to challenge the Englishmen in the World Cup, they need to gauge themselves against the Kiwis. The Blackcaps are in red-hot form and a series win in their own conditions will be a big boost to India’s World Cup ambitions.

While a series win on Australian soil is never to be scoffed at, India will do well to remember that Australia are in all kinds of disarray in the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner. In the three-match series against the Aussies, India also had the benefit of not having to deal with the pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood.

The Kiwis though, are a different proposition. In skipper Williamson they have one of the most consistent batsmen across all formats while in veteran Ross Taylor they have arguably the most in-form ODI batsman. Their bowling attack isn’t too shabby either with Trent Boult leading the line-up and it will be further strengthened with the return to fitness of all-rounder Mitchell Santner.

India themselves are looking light in the fast bowling department with the rest handed to Jasprit Bumrah and the suspension of all-rounder Hardik Pandya. With Pandya and KL Rahul still out of the team, Kohli will have to put on his thinking cap to try out other combinations.

Team India will not have it easy against the Kiwis.

Team India will not have it easy against the Kiwis.

The middle-order is still a worry for the tourists despite the resurgence of MS Dhoni with the bat. Question marks remain over Ambati Rayudu in the number four spot while the lack of an explosive batsman down the order is a pressing issue.

Kohli’s men will take on Australia at home before departing for the World Cup in England but it is their performance in New Zealand in the upcoming series that will show where they truly stand as a team. England got the better of the Kiwis last year. It is now India’s turn to show they can do the same.

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Dhoni proves his worth to India's ODI outfit but there could still be a role for Pant

Ashish Peter 18/01/2019
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Dhoni showed he is not finished just yet.

With his place in the ODI outfit coming increasingly under the scanner, MS Dhoni served a timely reminder of his prowess to help India clinch the series against Australia with his third consecutive half-century.

The veteran wicketkeeper’s waning powers with the bat has seen calls for his axing from the ODI squad increase over the past year or so and the emergence of Rishabh Pant in international cricket hadn’t helped his cause.

A dismal 2018 with the bat in the 50-over format which saw him fail to register a single half-century in 13 innings meant that the noose was tightening around Dhoni’s neck going into the series against Australia.

The signal that his place in the side was under threat had been made when he was dropped from the T20 outfit in the home series against West Indies as well as the following one against Australia.

As such, the pressure was well and truly on the veteran’s shoulders when the ODI series against the Aussies began. One more false step from Dhoni could have seen the curtains come down on his illustrious career just months before the World Cup in England.

With the chips down, Dhoni responded in splendid fashion to silence his critics with a man-of-the-series display Down Under. His batting was immediately thrust into the spotlight in the series opener as a top-order collapse saw India slump to 4-3.

The right-hander helped the visitors regroup in the company of Rohit Sharma but his 96-ball 51 in a losing cause only served to increase the pressure on his shoulders. More question marks were raised at his strike-rate which hovered around the 50 mark with the precarious situation Dhoni had walked in to bat conveniently ignored.

That criticism only spurred Dhoni on even further with the wicketkeeper notching up an unbeaten match-winning fifty in the must-win clash at Adelaide. For good measure, Dhoni even hit a sumptuous six off the last over of the innings to bring up his half-century. It was as if the old horse was trying to prove a point to his critics that he can still roll back the years and bring out the big shots when needed.

A chase of 231 in the deciding ODI was a situation perfectly tailored for Dhoni to do his thing and the stalwart did not disappoint with an unbeaten 114-ball 87 to help India cross the finish line.

A series aggregate of 193 runs with just one dismissal will go a long way towards silencing his detractors and his performances could very well have confirmed his ticket to the World Cup as India’s first-choice wicketkeeper.

Dhoni’s performance, coupled with Ambati Rayudu’s failure at number four, has also thrown up an interesting proposition for Virat Kohli and India. Though he walked in to bat at No5 in the first two ODIs, Dhoni looked good in the number four spot in the decider and could be a good bet in that role during the World Cup.

With a top-heavy batting order at the moment, India are currently lacking a truly explosive batsman lower down the order. Dinesh Karthik has shown that he can be a good finisher when the asking-rate is high but what India would dearly love right now is a batsman in the mould of Yuvraj Singh.

The left-hander was key for India with his batting in the lower middle-order in India’s 2011 World Cup win. With his strike-rate, Dhoni could be ideal for India at No4 given he usually takes some time before he gets going.

“It’s not about where you want to be, it’s about how many you can fill in that position. I’m happy to bat at any number. If I have to go back and bat at five or six, I’m happy to do that. Because the important thing is where the team needs me,” Dhoni had stated after India’s series clinching win on Friday.

With Karthik in the finisher’s role at six, India could afford to play an attacking batsman at number five. Kedar Jadhav showed that he can perform that part with his attacking half-century in the series decider but India could still consider Pant purely as a batsman in that role.

With his ability to accelerate from the very go, Pant could be used as a trump card in the number slot and India would be wise to let him audition for that part in the coming months.

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Time for Pakistan to switch on World Cup mode after Test disappointment against South Africa

Ashish Peter 16/01/2019
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A chance for Pakistan to leave behind their Test woes.

A 3-0 whitewash at the hands of South Africa in the Test series has once again laid bare Pakistan’s shortcomings in red-ball cricket as question marks continue to hover over Sarfraz Ahmed’s captaincy.

The comprehensive defeat against the Proteas comes on the back of an unexpected ‘home’ loss to New Zealand in the UAE with the team still struggling to fill the boots vacated by the retirements of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq.

While Sarfraz’s own form with the bat has come under the scanner, the team’s other senior batsmen too have failed to stand up when it counts. There have been some positives in the batting department with Babar Azam continuing to blossom into a fine red-ball batsman while Shan Masood emerged as the top run-scorer for the side on his return to the Pakistan squad.

In the bowling department, the pace battery did reasonably well in the Test series but was still some way short of the standards historically associated with Pakistan’s fast-bowling attack.

After being humiliatingly whitewashed by Sri Lanka in the UAE last year, the Test outfit had looked to be back on the right track with a good showing in the summer tours of Ireland and England. However, the recent losses against the Kiwis and South Africa has shown that there is a long way to way for No7 ranked Pakistan to establish themselves as a formidable Test team.

As head coach Mickey Arthur rightly pointed out after the series loss, there exists many chinks in the Pakistan red-ball armoury and they will have to be fixed before the inaugural ICC Test Championship gets under way this year.

Pressure has been mounting on Sarfraz Ahmed.

Pressure has been mounting on Sarfraz Ahmed.

Luckily for Arthur and his men, they now have a fair few months to fix their red-ball woes given their next Test series will come against Sri Lanka in September. For now, the Men in Green need to turn their attention towards limited-overs cricket exclusively in the coming months ahead of the 2019 ICC World Cup in England.

While doubts have been raised over Sarfraz’s leadership in the Test format, the same cannot be said about his captaincy in limited-overs cricket where Pakistan have been flourishing over the past two years or so.

Sarfraz’s men have been on a roll in the T20 format where they have won 11 series on the bounce and are the undisputed No1 team. They have not shown the same remarkable consistency in the ODI format but as they proved with their ICC Champions Trophy triumph in England in 2017, they remain capable of raising their game on the biggest of stages.

The Men in Green will return to the scene of their 2017 CT triumph.

The Men in Green will return to the scene of their 2017 CT triumph.

In truth, 2018 wasn’t the best of years for Pakistan in the 50-over format with series defeats in New Zealand as well as a dismal performance in the Asia Cup in the UAE.

As such, the preparations for Pakistan’s World Cup campaign should start in earnest now, beginning with the upcoming limited-overs clashes against South Africa. As their T20 performances and Champions Trophy win have shown, Pakistan have all the makings of an excellent ODI outfit.

However, there remains a fair amount of work for the team management to do to translate that success into the 50-over format on a regular basis. Pakistan are slated to play five ODIs and three T20s in their South African tour before they welcome Australia to the UAE for five 50-over clashes.

Another five ODIs and a sole T20 in England will provide Pakistan a final chance to sharpen their tools before all systems go in the World Cup.

Generating some winning momentum in these clashes should be Pakistan’s biggest target in the coming months and a win against the formidable Proteas in their own backward can send the right signals. The Champions Trophy title in England was one of the most memorable chapters in Pakistan’s cricket history but the prospect of attaining a second World Cup crown at the same venue should entice them no end.

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