India bowlers need to curb mistakes under pressure
India have already lost the No 1 ODI ranking following two defeats in Napier and Hamilton. One more defeat in Auckland will see them lose the series as well. The games at Napier and Hamilton must have felt almost like playing at home, seeing the bowlers go for so many. However, the batsmen, despite coming close, have been unable to mop up for the bowlers and that has been the crucial difference compared to playing in India.
New Zealand's one-day pitches may have flattened out over the past decade but they are still nowhere close to the roads that Indian bowlers are used to back home. There is little the team can do if the bowlers are slammed for 320 in Rajkot, apart from hoping that the batsmen do not have a rare off day. But New Zealand have shown that there was something in Napier and Hamilton for bowlers who were prepared to and knew how to squeeze out that help from the pitches. Napier had bounce and pace, Hamilton was a touch two-paced.
India, though, went through periods where they conceded too much ground in a short burst. It was not as if they were poor throughout, but their attack has this tendency to suddenly lose it in unison, especially if a batsman starts going berserk. The new fielding restrictions have only exacerbated that tendency. Corey Anderson has gone after them in both games, and although India, by their standards, have done admirably to come back at the death, the damage he inflicted proved too costly.
MS Dhoni knows his bowlers better than anybody else and has maintained right through that only four deep fielders are too little protection for their profligacy. But it has been over a year now since the new rules came in and the attack has to show signs of adapting, for there is no choice. And those signs have to translate into something concrete, especially outside India where everything cannot be blamed on dead pitches. If they don't, in another year, Dhoni will be left with the same woes in the 2015 World Cup.
Dhoni does feel that his bowlers have achieved some progress, particularly at the death. "To some extent, yes," Dhoni said after the Hamilton match. "To compare it to what was happening maybe six months back. Our death bowling seems to have improved a lot. What you are seeing close to 300 runs, you may see it as slightly expensive, but if we do not bowl as well as we are bowling in the last few overs, it may go in excess of 340. That puts some serious pressure on the batsmen. We have seen improvement."
The captain thinks a lot more can be done, and pointed out a couple of things which may appear quite basic, but are seemingly beyond the reach of Dhoni's bowlers at the moment.
"There is still scope for improvement. If we cannot give easy boundaries, off something like a wide ball or something on the pads that goes through short fine for a boundary," Dhoni said. "Stuff like that really adds on. Especially the first ball of the over or the sixth ball of the over, if you don't concede boundaries in those two, it really helps. That is one area where we are conceding quite a few runs - the first ball or the last ball of the over. Either we are not starting well or we are not finishing that particular over well."
Of the 61 boundaries India went for in Napier and Hamilton, 20 came off the first and last deliveries of overs. That is not an alarmingly high proportion, but you can see the point Dhoni is trying to make.
His attack may probably not have the skills to extract as much out of New Zealand pitches as the home bowlers have. But if they can at least avoid the above mistakes under pressure, India might yet be able to salvage this series.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo