Visakhapatnam: Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s leadership as well as finishing skills will be put through a stern test when an inconsistent India take on a rejuvenated New Zealand in the series-deciding fifth and final cricket ODI, here on Saturday.
With the series locked at 2-2, Dhoni and his men will be eager to clinch the issue while history beckons Kane Williamson’s men as they have a glorious opportunity to taste their maiden success in a bilateral ODI rubber.
The only thing that can play spoilsport is the cyclone threat which can lead to complete washout.
While Dhoni’s captaincy may not be under immediate threat but a series loss against New Zealand will certainly raise questions about ‘Captain Cool’s’ ability to marshall his resources after his much publicised admission of being unable to rotate strike lower down the order.
Under Dhoni, India lost three ODI series — 1-2 against Bangladesh in Bangladesh, 1-4 against Australia Down Under and 2-3 at home against South Africa.
The only ODI series victory in the last 18 months has been against a lowly Zimbabwe.
Away from home for four months spanning two continents, New Zealand’s only success was a 2-0 win against a lowly Zimbabwe, following which they drew South Africa 1-1 before being whitewashed 0-3 by India in the Tests.
Their ODI campaign started off on a sour note in Dharamasala but some strong batting performances by skipper Kane Williamson and Martin Guptill in Delhi and Ranchi respectively have managed to catch India off guard and level the five-match series 2-2.
That they have never won against India in four bilateral contests since 1988 will be a big motivation for the Black Caps to buck the trend and return home with an act of redemption.
Weather permitting, a tantalising finish is on the cards as India would be equally hungry for success at the Dr YS Rajasekhara Reddy ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium, a venue where they boast of a 4-1 record.
Their last win has been against Sri Lanka, a 5-0 whitewash way back in November-2014 and an under-fire Dhoni would not want another series loss at the fag end of his career.
The world No.4 India have just three more ODIs, against England, ahead of the coveted Champions Trophy in June next year and it would be an opportunity for Dhoni to give them a boost against a team which is ranked a notch higher.
The over-reliance on Virat Kohli has also been evident during the series as Indian Test captain was the prime performer in both victories during the first four matches so far.
With their opening pair of Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane yet to provide a much-needed solid start, India’s batting is centred around their no 1 batsman Kohli.
Consider this, India’s both the wins of the series had Kohli anchor the chase be it the 85 not out in a low-scoring chase in Dharamsala, or his majestic unbeaten 154 that hunted down New Zealand’s challenging 285 in Mohali.
Chasing a modest 261 in the fourth ODI in Ranchi, Rahane returned to form with a half-century while Kohli looked in full flow on a slow wicket but both failed to convert their starts, and it was a familiar story for the inexperienced middle-order.
Failure or not, Indian fabled opener Sharma has been a permanent member of the line-up with Dhoni seeming to be in no mood to give youngsters the chance and Mandeep Singh is seen warming the bench.
Sharma’s last big knock came in Australia, and it’s been more than nine months he’s yet to score a century in either longer or shorter format. His scores in the ongoing series read 14, 15, 13 and 11, something that is hurting India’s cause more than anything else.
It’s high time that the world record holder for ODI individual score of 264 returns to form in the most-important match of the series, and at his mother’s home town he would hope to make it special.
It’s the same venue where Dhoni had got instant stardom with his fiery 123-ball 148 to take India to a huge 356/9 in their 58-run win over Pakistan in the first match of the venue.
The Dhoni special had come batting at no 3. The Indian skipper may not be like the old ‘Dhoni’ but having promoted to no 4 in Mohali where he scored a 91-ball 80 his intentions are right, if not his reflexes.
Following up with his brilliant half-century, Dhoni disappointed his home crowd with a 31-ball 11 before being cleaned up by James Neesham, and missing the line completely.
In his heyday, he would have dispatched it for six but Dhoni is struggling to get back to his old rhythm.
He has also made a stunning revelation of ‘losing ability’ to freely rotate in the middle as to expect a Dhoni special would be like expecting a youngster to finish a chase.
As for bowling, India have done reasonably well, especially the spin trio of Amit Mishra, Axar Patel and part-timer Kedar Jadhav who have ensured that they have not missed the regulars, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
On pace front, India would hope that Jasprit Bumrah who was indisposed and was replaced by a lacklustre Dhawal Kulkarni returns to full fitness.
Opener Martin Guptill’s return to form in Ranchi to go with the consistency of Tom Latham who has five half-centuries from seven matches, combined Tests and ODIs, on the tour will give New Zealand a massive advantage up front.
Skipper Williamson at number 3 too has been consistent but it’s their middle order who has often frittered away good starts, be it in Ranchi where they were on course for 300 or in the previous ODIs.
Left-arm spinner Anton Devcich who was included as a third spinner in Ranchi looked ordinary as Williamson may not mind bringing back either Corey Anderson or Matt Henry.
With conditions overcast, the last thing India would want is a wash-out. Despite weakening, cyclone Kyant and has gone further down south, there’s forecast of localised downpours as both the teams will keep their fingers crossed.
The venue is slated to host its maiden Test in less than a month’s time, when India take on England from November 17.
As a matter of fact, around the same time Visakhapatnam was ravaged by cyclone Hudhud and the scheduled last ODI here between India and West Indies was cancelled without a ball bowled on October 14, 2014.
It remains to be seen whether India give themselves a Diwali gift or New Zealand return home with their heads held high.
India: MS Dhoni (Captain and wicketkeeper), Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli, Axar Patel, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Amit Mishra, Dhawal Kulkarni, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Jayant Yadav and Mandeep Singh.
New Zealand: Kane Williamson (Captain), Martin Guptill, Tom Latham, Ross Taylor, James Neesham, BJ Watling, Anton Devcich, Mitchell Santner, Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Ish Sodhi, Corey Anderson, Luke Ronchi, Matt Henry and Doug Bracewell.
Match starts 1.30pm IST.