India vs New Zealand: One blow doesn’t unmake a summer

Stand-in captain Rohit Sharma reacts after dropping a catch during the third T20I against New Zealand in Hamilton. (AP)

For a series determined by the last two balls, celebrations and mourning were an anti-climatic afterthought. Dinesh Karthik and Krunal Pandya, on whom was tasked the mission to steer India home in the final over by scoring required 16 runs, didn't plunge ruefully onto the ground. Tim Southee, who executed a perfect last over until the irrelevant last ball, forced a smile. Neither Kane Williamson nor his charges scampered frantically for the souvenir stumps.

It was as though the curtains were pulled down on a purely academic series. The Kiwis obviously could be ecstatic of the brand of electrifying cricket they played, but the Indians could soak in the conclusion of their most rewarding trip to the Southern Hemisphere. Incidentally, the trip ended as it began, with a T20I defeat by an identical margin of four runs, but when Ravi Shastri and his men sit down and take stock of the last three months, the T20 defeats would hardly be dissected or pined over.

It's what transpired in between that would remain immortal, the still-radiating glaze of India's first-ever Test and ODI bilateral series wins in Australia, followed by a 4-1 thumping of New Zealand in the one-dayers. Fair enough to suggest that all that mattered this summer was the Test series and once it concluded, the narrative thread shifted to the World Cup, given the immediacy of it, and understandably it remained relevant throughout the T20s as well. A reason this defeat would neither hurt nor harangue India.


Why it is more effective to play two wrist-spinners

Krunal Pandya gives India an all-round option in T20Is, and his arrival as low as No.8 meant the visitors still had a chance as the Hamilton match reached its climax. But as far as bowling goes, the left-handed Pandya did not pull his weight, conceding 54 runs in his wicket-less four overs. It may have been better for India to unleash the wrist-spinning duo of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav on the Kiwis, who struggle to read their variations. The chinaman bowler conceded just 26 runs in his four overs, dismissing the two rampaging openers, a more than acceptable return in a high-scoring fixture. But with Pandya not providing any mystery on the New Zealand batsmen, there was never any pressure from the other end. If Chahal had played, there would have been an attacking option from both ends and India, as was evident in the first three matches of the preceding ODI series. If that had been the case, India would not have been chasing a 200+ score on Sunday. Then they probably would not have needed a significant contribution from their No. 8 batsman.

If the visitors had a specific agenda, they didn't veil it. Skipper Virat Kohli was afforded a valuable breather. Jasprit Bumrah was granted time to replenish. Spinners were rotated, batting order was shuffled and reshuffled, roles were exchanged and interchanged, new players were blooded in, a sense of experimentation thus was inescapable in the concerted bid to lay down the blueprint for the World Cup.

At the start of the ODI leg in Sydney, both Kohli and Shastri had hinted at how they would use every opportunity to fine-tune the combinations for the World Cup. "We have zeroed in on the 18-20 players we will be considering for the World Cup, but we're still looking two-three spots," Kohli had observed.

Vijay Shankar, biggest positive

One of them was a lower middle-order batsman who could fulfill the finishing duties, now that MS Dhoni is usually deployed at No. 4 or 5. Ambati Rayudu reminded he's still resourceful enough to warrant a place in the side, but it's the emergence of all-rounder Vijay Shankar that should excite India the most. He was an accidental inclusion for the ODIs in New Zealand, but has maximised his breaks efficiently to buttress his World Cup-berth stakes. He didn't get to bat in the first three ODIs he played, but in the fourth showed his faculties with a steady 45 in trying circumstances. "From 18-4 we went to 116-4, 98-run partnership. So I want guys who can play any time in our World Cup squad. If he had been there for the last 8-10 overs, he would have spanked the bowling," observed Shastri in an interview with Cricbuzz.

Spank he did in the T20Is. Promoted to Nos. 4 and 3 in the T20s, he showed what he's capable of, and that he has left his batting travails in the Nidahas Trophy far behind. That he could hang around is well chronicled in the domestic circuit, but his big-hitting prowess in limited-overs cricket was doubtful. In the past, he had struggled with both timing and placement, often picking the wrong strokes for the wrong balls. But in New Zealand, he was not only picking the right deliveries, but also hitting the ball cleanly and crisply, hitting more sixes than anybody else in his team, scoring fewer runs than only Rohit Sharma and with a strike rate of 155.55, better than Rohit, Shikhar Dhawan and Dhoni.

His 43 in Hamilton will only press his case further, as it was a knock that conformed to the ODI No. 5's manual than a T20 No. 3's template. He happily kept rotating the strike before taking on the spinners, blending both stability and aggression. He didn't bowl, unlike in the ODIs, where he was more than resourceful, but was more efficient in the field, his direct hit from long-on to run the dangerous Ross Taylor out was arguably the turning point of the second T20I.

Here thus is a multidimensional player - he can bat anywhere in the order, perform any role with the bat, is a canny fielder and resourceful bowler. He might not have the bluster of Hardik Pandya, the first-choice all-rounder, but has showed he can do anything that Pandya can do. Pandya maybe a slightly better bowler, but Shankar is a better batsman, especially with his stickability, as he illustrated in Wellington. This series threw enough hint that he's not just Pandya's back-up, but his competitor. Experts like Sunil Gavaskar are convinced India should take both, more so as Shankar can command a place in the side on his batting skills alone.

Whether the performances would guarantee him a World Cup spot is uncertain, but he has served a strong memo to the selectors. Like Rishabh Pant, he has made the exercise of picking the World Cup squad less straightforward. Like Shankar, Pant was not part of the initial scheme, but made the absolute best of his opportunities, so much so that the team management will be mulling on tweaking him into the side as a specialist batsman. He can also be the Dhoni's cover.

No wonder Shastri raves about him: "Outstanding (player)! What I love about that kid is his self-confidence, and his ability to listen and learn. Take his hundred in the Sydney Test - we challenged him on the morning of the game to get a hundred. I told him, 'be smart with Nathan Lyon, and attack the fast bowlers. And he got 150. What a special kid…What a special talent!"

Truly a team performance

Resurgence, thus, was the reverberating theme of India's sojourn in the Southern Hemisphere. In the Test series, it was about Cheteshwar Pujara redeeming his overseas credentials, Mayank Agarwal exhibiting his readiness and preparedness at the highest level, while in the ODIs, Dhoni reinforced that there's still miles left in his legs, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav filed a deadly warning to batsmen the world over, while Pant and Shankar have auditioned credibly enough to push for World Cup spots. Not to discount the fledgling Khaleel Ahmed, erratic but precociously talented.

So even if you weave in the fact that India ended their Antipodean summer on a grim note, the mood is one of jubilation and optimism. Of the gratifying times past and exciting times ahead.