Depleted India show few signs of weakness
After a month's gap before starting a new season, a depleted India could probably not have asked for a better opposition to get some momentum going and move to No. 1 in the ICC's ODI rankings. Despite a brief slip during their chase of a modest target, the result was never in doubt from the moment New Zealand lost customary early wickets at the start of their innings. For a depleted India to successfully chase a total which, given the reputation this venue has, was one of those awkward in-between targets was creditable, though MS Dhoni will probably admit there is a little room for improvement.
India's batting had struggled over the past couple months, especially against good fast bowling, and the evidence presented tonight was a bit worrying. Dinesh Karthik went early, beaten for pace, Rahul Dravid pottered about for 14 runs in 45 balls, unsettled by Shane Bond's hostile first spell, while Yuvraj Singh's impetuosity and ineptitude against top-class spin was again exposed. Sachin Tendulkar eased back with a stroke-filled innings before he was undone by a slower ball.
At 84 for 4 there might have been the odd quiver in the Indian dressing room. Dhoni has spoken of how India didn't have a fixed batting line-up and how that had been crucial to their success as a winning unit over the past two years. That mindset was again reflected today as Dhoni pushed himself up and held back Suresh Raina. Yuvraj, sent in at No. 4, disappointed: he struggled against spin and tried to hit his way out of trouble, only to top-edge. Raina was positive - and more successful than Yuvraj - from the start and displayed some eye-catching shots either side of the track to keep runs ticking and his captain calm at one end. His unbeaten 54-ball 45 was a cool innings under pressure.
Dhoni could afford to bide his time because of the quick work done by Tendulkar, back in the side and at his best position, in scoring 46 from 55 balls. Dhoni has tempered his game, more so since becoming captain, and has become a reliable man when the run rate rises; he has especially been good at the tip-and-run game. He has closeted many of the shots that made him such a feared one-day batsman, but he remains a real threat in the middle over. Circumstances have shaped Dhoni's game and there are others who have had to alter their approach, and one of them played a key role in the afternoon.
A year ago it would have been unimaginable that Ashish Nehra would be opening the bowling for India. But Nehra, after taking 19 wickets at 18.21 in this year's IPL, made an impressive comeback in the international circuit after almost four years. He has had to cut down on pace due to the number of injuries he sustained, but Nehra believes he is now ready to lead the Indian pace attack in the Champions Trophy in the absence of the injured Zaheer Khan. And he was excellent today, bowling with intelligence and assurance. Significantly, Nehra was successful at two junctures, landing two crippling blows at the start and then stifling the tail. After receiving the Man-of-the-Match award, Nehra spoke of how a difficult four years away from the team strengthened his desire to come back hard.
India's new-ball pair of Nehra and RP Singh - and perhaps a few more fast bowlers on the international circuit - will want to take this New Zealand top order with them across the globe. Up against batsmen short of confidence and runs, there was little pressure on Nehra, RP and Ishant Sharma. New Zealand were yet again caught amidships, uncertain as to what approach to adopt, and the margin of error was significant. All three fast bowlers bowled impressive spells that spanned the length of the innings, after which Yuvraj Singh came on and prised out two wickets for nothing, but Sri Lanka will offer a tougher test of their temperament on Saturday.
After a month's break, and in their first match of a new season, India have done enough to indicate they are back in business.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo