Martin Guptill walked out to bat with a simple brief: take down the bowling while you still can. It might not appear radically different to how he has batted all series, but the conditions made such an approach necessary. New Zealand had finally won a toss on the tour and batting first was a no-brainer on a pitch that had very little bounce and would become slower.
Up to this point, Guptill's only contribution with the bat was a half-century in Indore after the Test series was decided. Here was a chance to make a difference while the series was still alive. But, he had to do it while the ball still came on to the bat; there was little scope for playing himself in and then launching into attack.
And so, Guptill approached it as a glutton would an all-you-can-eat buffet near closing time. He was edgy at the crease and twice jumped out to Umesh Yadav in the first over, but eventually played out a maiden. He found his release in the next over, as he smacked Dhawal Kulkarni over the infield for a brace of boundaries. When Kulkarni pitched it short, he belted out a ferocious cut.
The loft over the infield was his first-choice weapon, and the cut and flick his failsafe when the bowlers compensated with a short ball. He and Tom Latham put on 96 runs in 15.3 overs, creating a buffer for the fallow spell in the middle overs. Guptill said hitting over the top was central to his limited-overs batting in the last year and a half. "I enjoy hitting the ball over the top when I can. So I just tried to make use of the ball when it was hard and I got away with it today."
Unlike Guptill, his opposite number Ajinkya Rahane hasn't struggled for form. Rahane was the second-highest run-getter in the Test series, but then his place in the ODI side has never been a given. There was pressure on him coming into this game after he failed to convert starts in Dharamsala and Delhi before falling cheaply in Mohali. Rahane now had two shots at best to show why he deserved to keep his spot before Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul returned from injury.
But, Rahane's ODI game is seen to be at odds with sluggish pitches like the one in Ranchi. At times over the past two years, MS Dhoni has expressed his belief that Rahane needs pace in the pitch to score, and that he struggles to rotate the strike on sluggish surfaces. This was then a crucial innings from the point of view of Rahane' career - a big score would not only help India clinch the series but also prove he could wing his limited-overs game to succeed on slow surfaces.
In a departure from the first three ODIs, Rahane took first strike. He played his usual go-to shots - the back-foot punch and the straight drive - but the real sign of intent came through a dandy upper cut off Trent Boult to hit the first six of the match. Rahane, however, didn't deviate from his natural game. There were gorgeous boundaries hit, but the familiar problems persisted. Often, Rahane, standing on middle and off stump, missed quite a few balls angling into his legs - he was eventually dismissed by one such delivery - thus missing run-scoring opportunities.
With a dot-ball percentage of more than 50, it could be argued his strike-rotation was once again suspect. However, a measure of the difficulty in rotating strike on this pitch could be seen in the 22 dots played out by Virat Kohli off the 51 balls he faced. Even after Kohli's dismissal, Rahane consolidated things along with Dhoni before falling to a good delivery just when he was looking to attack. Dhoni, though, felt Rahane had done an adequate job.
"At that point in time I think partnerships were needed more than anything else," Dhoni said after the match. "According to the requirement of the match, he was batting well. That's how he bats and I don't think there was anything wrong."
This wasn't too dissimilar to how Guptill's innings shaped up. After racing to 43 off 34 balls at the end of the first Powerplay, he gritted out it till the 26th over to finish with 72 off 84. When the spinners were bowling, the ball hardly came on to the bat, but Guptill hung around, with a little bit of help from Amit Mishra's fielding. Before this match, he hadn't lasted for more than 21 balls this series.
While Guptill didn't look at the innings as a redemptive effort, its value wasn't lost on him. "It wasn't as fluent as I would have liked, but I'll take 72 any day of the week," he said. "Once the ball became a bit softer the scoring became a lot tougher and you had to grind it out a wee bit. I was happy to get through that little period."
Both Rahane and Guptill set up strong bases for their respective sides - it will be fair to assume they have also earned themselves some breathing space - but it was only the latter's team-mates that saw through the effort to its logical conclusion.