Chennai: The Indian batting emphasised why they are such a feared unit by piling up 360 against New Zealand, despite the failures of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag at the MA Chidambaram Stadium. Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli, two batsmen who tormented New Zealand in the one-day series three months ago, crafted a century partnership to set the base, before MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina, two batsmen who are crowd favourites in Chennai for their IPL exploits, delighted the fans with brutal hitting that was frenetic even by Twenty20 standards. The final 16 overs brought a jaw-dropping 193 runs to further demoralise a struggling New Zealand outfit, who were eventually crushed by 117 runs.
It had been run-of-the-mill stuff till the 34th over, with the bowling mostly mediocre and the batsmen mainly concerned with consolidation. The mandatory ball change in the 35th over brought prompted the batting Powerplay, and began an hour-long period of carnage. Gambhir started it with lap sweeps and carves over extra cover, followed by three successive boundaries off Tim Southee in the 37th to pick up 31 off 12 deliveries before nicking to the keeper.
If New Zealand felt that would provide some respite, there were emphatically proved wrong by Dhoni and Raina, both of whose one-day fortunes have hit a trough in the recent past. Dhoni showed that the bludgeoner of old wasn't gone for good, by thrashing a 61-ball century that had plenty of heaves over midwicket and power-packed drives down the ground. There were some deft placements as well from Dhoni to collect boundaries past short third man and short fine leg. Raina joined in the fun, with his patented swipes towards midwicket fetching him loads of runs in a 25-ball half-century.
Jacob Oram's bowling performance perfected illustrated how New Zealand wilted after a solid beginning. Oram, fighting for a place in the starting XI, started the day with the massive wicket of Virender Shehwag off his first delivery. It got even better for him when he returned for the second spell; he had Kolhi poking at an extremely wide delivery that ended up as a nick to the keeper, and his figures read 7-1-30-2. The smile was off his face in his final burst, though, as Dhoni picked five successive fours off him before Raina swung him for three sixes over midwicket in four balls. Oram kicked the ground in disgust as he ended with 9-1-70-2.
The Chennai fans wouldn't have expected such a treat when the superstar opening pair of Tendulkar and Sehwag fell within the first ten overs. It was Kohli who led the recovery initially after the loss of the two wickets, continuing to be in the fluent form that has led to a chorus of calls for finding him a place in the World Cup XI. A combination of hard-hit lofted drives and delicate dinks behind square brought him a half-century, which along with Raina's whirlwind innings will leave the Indian team management reaching for the aspirin when they have to decide which of the two to leave out in the opening match in Dhaka.
New Zealand's team management will have headaches of their own, but not as pleasant as India's. The batting can't be blamed for coming up short in the face of a mammoth target, but the bowling which was taken apart today had shipped loads of runs in the first warm-up against Ireland as well. New bowling coach Allan Donald will have his hands full during the tournament.
New Zealand began their chase spiritedly with Brendon McCullum and Martin Guptill scoring quickly against the quick bowlers. As on Sunday against Australia, it was the spinners that applied the brakes for India. New Zealand had sprinted to 94 for 0 in 15 overs, when offspinner R Ashwin removed Guptill with a delivery that spun sharply and bounced, flying off the bat handle to Dhoni. McCullum was then dismissed attempting a misjudged run, before Harbhajan Singh removed the two other big names in the New Zealand batting, Jesse Ryder and Ross Taylor. At 147 for 5, the game was up, though New Zealand's lower order lingered around for another 18 overs.
Several worries remain for India. Firstly, the ineffectiveness of the fast bowling in the absence of Zaheer Khan. The quicks have been blunted by the opposition openers in both practice games, leaving India pondering who to pick to partner Zaheer on Saturday. The other is the fielding, with two straightforward catches being put down - one by Gambhir at midwicket, and another by Munaf Patel at deep square leg.
Dhoni will be satisfied overall with the two wins in the pratice matches, but he won't be getting carried away by these results, especially after India's disastrous 2007 World Cup campaign which had begun with two massive victories in the practice matches.