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Cricket news - Teething problems gnaw at New Zealand ahead of World Cup

With no Plan B and little creativity in the middle, the Black Caps are quickly losing ground ahead of the World Cup

If New Zealand are pondering what exactly hit them after the 4-1 loss to India in the ODI series, they needn't analyse the opposition camp as much as they scrutinise their own. While the bullish Indian outfit has been setting the benchmark in ODIs of late, the home team made far too many errors in a five-match series and did not deserve a better scoreline.

Contrast this to the 2017 ODI tour of India and you would see a cavernous hole in terms of planning and execution.

Between the embarrassing Champions Trophy 2017 loss to Bangladesh and the ODI series in India four months later, New Zealand were in hibernation, snuggled up in their High Performance Unit, learning the art of playing spin and countering low and slow tracks. New Zealand is a small country and making optimal use of what's available is critical to developing a well-oiled machine.

The High Performance Unit facilitated this. Dry surfaces were replicated and batsmen were encouraged to play the sweep shots more. For the tour of India, New Zealand initially picked just nine players in their main squad. This left as many as six spots open for the best, in-form players from the New Zealand A team, who played a series in India prior to the main squad's arrival.

Tom Latham, a fine player of spin and an adept sweeper of the cricket ball, was cleverly pushed to the middle order. The swap was made with Colin Munro, who with his aggression at the top of the order, ensured New Zealand got off to flying starts even if Martin Guptill took time to settle in. To everyone's surprise, New Zealand dethroned India at Mumbai in the first ODI by six wickets as Latham put on an exhibition of sweeping against the spinners.

New Zealand went on to narrowly lose the series but not many teams had made India sweat at home like they did on that tour, and the pillar of that success was some impeccable planning.

That kind of attention to detail in planning appeared to be lacking at home over the past few weeks during a largely one-sided series.

The usually busy Kane Williamson scored at a strike rate of 70.12, the highest score by a Kiwi opener was 31, none of the five all-rounders made a huge impression and the bowlers had to wait for the ball to swing to trouble India's top order. The Indian spinners picked up 20 wickets among them as the Black Caps virtually threw away any good partnership they managed to build. Of the seven best partnerships in the series, New Zealand owned just one - a robust stand between Taylor and Latham at Mount Maunganui in the third ODI broken by a lazy flick off Yuzvendra Chahal to the deep fielder by Latham.

The shot perhaps defines one of several moments in the series where New Zealand were plain imprudent. In the final ODI alone, the Black Caps made a series of errors that led to the loss. Williamson and Latham were lifting the hosts from a precarious 38 for three at Wellington but while still on the precipice at 105 for three, the skipper chose to go after part-timer Kedar Jadhav with little conviction and gifted a catch to deep mid-wicket. Earlier, Williamson and Taylor neglected to review a leg-before decision against the latter when replays showed the ball would have missed the stumps.

In the first innings, they had India on the mat at 18 for four but chose to sit back and go with the flow instead of driving home the advantage. Trent Boult and Matt Henry were taken off after six and seven overs respectively in the opening spell but neither returned until the 37th over, when Ambati Rayudu had crossed a half-century and India were 133 for five. With 78 to win in 14 overs and four wickets in hand, James Neesham - completely unaware of the whereabouts of the ball - set off for a non-existent run and ran himself out.

Now, less than four months from the World Cup, the Kiwis are less lucid on their targets. The squad is far from being finalised and roles within the team are yet to be properly set. Nicholls, a middle-order batsman who had enjoyed success in his role, was pushed to open and Tim Southee remained on the bench even as it swung in Hamilton and Wellington. As many as three pace-bowling all-rounders and two spin-bowling all-rounders auditioned for a place from Nos 7 through 9. Yet, at the end of it all, there is little clarity on who the front-runners are.

A more worrying area is tackling spin bowling. In the last three months, they have played three sub-continental sides - Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India - and aside from Kuldeep and Chahal, Jadhav, Shadab Khan and Imad Wasim have enjoyed success against them. Strike rotation against spin has become a concern as has the inability to ride the tough spells and enjoy the benefits later.

Against a listless Sri Lankan unit on flat pitches, they scored big but even then six of their eight half-century stands in that series came when the irresistible Taylor manned one end. Of the six century stands against these sub-continental sides since November 2018, five involved Taylor. Latham and Williamson were each involved twice. The rest have virtually been absent.

A lot of ODI cricket results are now decided by how the middle overs are played out. Doubling the 30-over score is no longer a cliche in ODIs with the extra fielder in the deep after the 40th over. Instead, teams now use the 30-40 overs to hit the right tempo before the death. New Zealand have instead been throwing wickets away in this time frame. As many as 11 wickets were lost in this phase in the recently concluded series against India. A further nine were lost in between 15-30 overs. Instead of setting up their finishers with a strong platform, New Zealand have been throwing starts away carelessly.

With the ball, they have been hoping for conditions to align in their favour to unleash Boult and Henry. They demolished the Indian top-order in the final two matches but still lost one of those games. With no Plan B and little creativity in the middle, the Black Caps are quickly losing ground ahead of the World Cup, contrary to what their record suggests against teams other than India.

Cometh the World Cup, New Zealand might still usurp the bigger teams on their day, but unless head coach Gary Stead manages to give his team some much needed "josh" like India did, they would have to pray for days like Hamilton when Boult can work his magic with the brand new ball.

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