Rejuvenated New Zealand hope to check rampaging India’s progress

New Zealand celebrate a wicket. © ICC

The last T20I series between India and New Zealand was played only about a year ago, but it feels like it’s from another era, for both teams. 

For New Zealand, they had a different captain, a different wicket-keeper, a different opening combination. And since then, there has been much change on the contractual side of things too. But more on that later. 

India are younger, more dangerous with the bat, and more athletic in the field. And they go into this game with two wins, and an opportunity to put a foot in the semi-finals. 

Teams:

Sophie Devine has almost single-handedly been leading New Zealand in the batting department over the last year (six consecutive 50+ scores), and she now takes over the captaincy as well.  Her leadership so far has been astute, but New Zealand will miss the batting ability of her predecessor. Amy Satterthwaite is New Zealand’s third highest run-scorer in T20Is, and more significantly, their best player of spin, adept at using her feet. Her absence (on maternity leave) will also mean that there are no left-handers in New Zealand’s team. 

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Making up for that is Rachel Priest’s return to the side. After losing her place in 2017, Priest remained a much sought-after overseas player in the two T20 Leagues (the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia and Women’s Cricket Super League in England), and runs in those competitions allowed her to force her way back into the side. She disrupts the ‘Smash Sisters’ (as Devine and Suzie Bates are known) at the top of the order, but her presence allows Bates to bat in the middle, giving New Zealand some much needed depth. 

The last time India played New Zealand, they had still not entered the teen-thunder era they are currently enjoying. The search for an opening partner to Smriti Mandhana was still on, and the new coach WV Raman seemed to be still pondering whether Mithali Raj had a place in the side. Both those questions have now been answered. Mithali’s retirement and Shafali Verma’s inclusion have brought India’s average age down and sent their overall strike rate up. With the ball, there was no Shikha Pandey or Rajeshwari Gayakwad on that tour; both have impressed in Australia. India might be tempted to play another left-arm spinner, given the lack of left-handers in the White Ferns side. 

“Shafali coming into the T20 side, it’s made it so easy to bat alongside her when I’m opening,” said Mandhana. “We’ve become a better fielding side too. There are a lot of positive changes in the last one year.” Mandhana faced the press with a sore throat, but said she is likely to recover enough to be fit for the game.

Venue:

The tournament has moved back east, and these two teams will now face off at a venue both know fairly well. India played the second round of the T20I tri-series at the Junction Oval in Melbourne. It is also the home ground of the Melbourne Renegades, for whom Satterthwaite and Lea Tahuhu have played. 

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“We’ve got a lot of experienced girls who have played here a lot. I’m sharing my knowledge from here, but Katey Martin also played here a lot and Suzie put a few balls over the fence here when she was playing for Adelaide,” said Tahuhu. “I think it will be a new pitch tomorrow so that will have a bit more in it for the seamers.”

Tahuhu is right; the ground staff were still working hard on the pitch, a different strip from the ones used in the tri-series, which had a decidedly dark shade to it. Some rain in the last few days means that the surface might not be as flat as we have come to expect. 

The big picture:

Despite a sizable lead in the head-to-head between these teams, New Zealand go into this game having lost their last two ICC tournament games to India. India knocked them out of the 2017 World Cup in a virtual quarter final, and then handed them an opening defeat in the 2018 World T20, which put them on the brink of elimination. 

Recognising that they have not played a world final since 2010, and dropped out of the top-four in the last two ICC tournaments, New Zealand have rejigged their contract structure. The number of centrally contracted players now stands at 79; it was previously 15. 54 of these are players from each state (nine per major association) who will be paid to play for the first time in the country’s history.

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While it is too soon for those changes to take effect, the new agreement and improved contracts come with maternity clauses, allowing Satterthwaite to take maternity leave, and she has just had a girl with wife Tahuhu. 

With renewed support from their organisation, New Zealand will be hoping to overturn some indifferent tournament performances. A defeat would point them to a virtual quarterfinal against hosts and holders Australia. 

Squads:

India: Harmanpreet Kaur (c), Smriti Mandhana, Shafali Verma, Jemimah Rodrigues, Harleen Deol, Veda Krishnamurthy, Taniya Bhatia (wk), Deepti Sharma, Shikha Pandey, Pooja Vastrakar, Poonam Yadav, Radha Yadav, Arundhati Reddy, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Richa Ghosh.

New Zealand: Sophie Devine (c), Suzie Bates, Lauren Down, Maddy Green, Holly Huddleston, Hayley Jensen, Leigh Kasperek, Amelia Kerr, Jess Kerr, Rosemary Mair, Katey Martin, Katie Perkins, Anna Peterson, Rachel Priest, Lea Tahuhu.