Ahead of the five-match ODI series against New Zealand, India had a total of eight ODIs to cover all their bases ahead of the Champions Trophy next year. MS Dhoni, who usually cringes at any suggestions of 'experimentation', admitted the series was an opportunity to try out different players and fill a few slots. By the time India clinched the series 3-2 in Visakhapatnam, Dhoni would have been happy with the progress made on a few fronts.
Mishra returns, again
Before the start of the series, Amit Mishra had played 31 ODIs in 13 years. Apart from the palindromic symmetry of these numbers, two things stand out: a) He has been around for ages without ever being a permanent fixture in the limited-overs side; b) Despite that, his talent and persistence have always kept him in the reckoning.
In the absence of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, who were rested, Mishra was the lead spinner by default. By the end of the fifth ODI, Mishra had earned the right to be the leader of the entire bowling unit, picking 15 wickets to claim his first man-of-the-series award. His wickets arrived through a seductive blend of flight, dip, aided by plenty of revs on the ball, and turn. Just look up the dismissals of Ross Taylor and Luke Ronchi in Mohali, and James Neesham in Visakhapatnam.
Mishra, who is a month shy of turning 34, knows he has to perform every time an opportunity comes his way. He acknowledges that the key to this lies, apart from his fizzing leg-breaks, in improving his fielding and batting.
Dhoni moves to No 4
One of the things MS Dhoni has endlessly fretted over in the last few years has been identifying a finisher. With the search remaining futile, Dhoni had no choice but to bat at No 5 or 6, from where bashing the bowling from the outset proved difficult. Dhoni eventually bit the bullet, and in giving himself a promotion, challenged the inexperienced middle-order batsmen to learn the finisher's job on the fly.
The results were instant. His 80 in Mohali was fashioned from a younger Dhoni's template of accumulate and accelerate. Dhoni's shift in batting position is less of a concession to a senior pro than an arrangement that optimises his value as a batsman. He would want his younger colleagues in the middle order to ensure they hold up their side of the bargain
The Jadhav surprise
Ahead of this series, Kedar Jadhav was known as a batsman who could keep wicket occasionally. It is believed Dhoni wanted someone who could play Suresh Raina's role as a middle-order bat who could send down a few overs, and Jadhav appeared the closest alternative. He was then given an extended bowling session in the nets on the eve of the first ODI, which was followed by Dhoni identifying him, along with Rohit Sharma, as one of his part-timers.
As it turned out, Jadhav, with his subtle pace variations and low-arm release, became a compulsive partnership-breaker, and finished with six wickets in the series at an economy rate of 4.05. To Dhoni's credit, he never over-bowled him, and ensured he retained the surprise element. Jadhav's biggest challenge, however, was to prove himself with the bat. While he scored an enterprising 40 in a losing cause in Delhi, it was the calm and selfless manner in which he batted at the death in Visakhapatnam that must have pleased Dhoni the most.
The new-ball punt with Pandya
When Hardik Pandya was picked for the New Zealand ODIs, there were several groans of disapproval. Admittedly, there was a case for scepticism: Pandya had had a poor IPL followed by a mediocre tour to Australia with the India A team. The numbers weren't in his favour, but the selectors were excited by his pace with the ball, and the spunk he showed in his counter-attacking 79 in Brisbane.
Dhoni put Pandya's "deceptive pace" to good use when he gave him the new ball on ODI debut in Dharamsala. Pandya's 3 for 31 won him the man of the match award, but the bigger takeaway was that he could swing the ball at upwards of 135 kph. Pandya also nearly won the game for India in Delhi with a thrilling late-innings assault.
In the last few years, India have tried out a few players such as Rishi Dhawan, Stuart Binny and Pandya himself, for the seam-bowling allrounder's slot. Should Pandya sustain his form and not bowl waywardly - as in Ranchi where he conceded eight wides - he will be one of Dhoni's go-to men in England next year for the Champions Trophy.
Umesh , Axar and other unsung heroes
Umesh Yadav's contribution to India's series win went beyond his eight wickets. His initial thrust with the new ball usually brought the big wickets, which then helped the spinners bore into the middle order. Umesh, in fact, got Martin Guptill out three times in the series, twice in the first over of the innings. Umesh regularly delivered from close to the stumps, and, apart from in Mohali where he went for runs, this appeared to give him greater control.
Axar Patel may not yet be in Jadeja's class, but he did everything that's part of the Saurashtra allrounder's job description. While he was Dhoni's designated run-choker at different stages in the innings, he rose to the occasion with the bat by scoring a gutsy 38 when promoted to No.5 in Ranchi. In the final ODI, he hit an 18-ball 24 to rev up the scoring rate in the slog.
That Jayant Yadav and Mandeep Singh were among the most tireless workers at net sessions pointed to a happy and motivated bench. Jayant would often bowl for more than an hour, and spend most of his time talking shop with coach Anil Kumble. Jayant was the only player in India's squad to not play a single game on the Zimbabwe tour, and it looked like he'd have to wait even longer to get his maiden international cap. But, when he was given an opportunity in Visakhapatnam, he did his prospects no harm.
Mandeep still remains uncapped, but showed tremendous athleticism when he substituted for Rohit in Visakhapatnam. A string of diving stops inside the circle denied New Zealand's batsmen boundaries and added to the pressure they were under.