After securing an unassailable 3-0 lead in the five-match series, the Indian team management focussed on testing their bench strength in the fourth One-Day International (ODI) at the Seddon Park in Hamilton on 31st January.
With Virat Kohli rested for the remainder of the tour, the No. 3 spot was occupied by young Shubman Gill who was eager to make a mark on his debut. MS Dhoni's fitness continued to be an issue, allowing Dinesh Karthik to carry out the wicket-keeping duties. And, Mohammed Shami paved way for Khaleel Ahmed to feature in his first game on this tour.
With the series sealed, there was not much for India to lose and trying out different combinations made sense in the wake of the ICC World Cup in England in May. On the other hand, the hosts, who were comprehensively humbled in almost all facets of the game earlier, were eager to restore some pride going into the fourth ODI.
But, what eventually unfolded at the Seddon Park was neither predicted, nor imagined by cricket pundits, fans or even the hosts themselves.
Asked to bat first, the high-flying Indian batting line-up was given a reality check by New Zealand's swing sensation Trent Boult. Recording sensational figures of 5-21, the 29-year-old ran through the Indian batting order to ensure they were bundled out for a paltry total of 92 runs.
It all began in the sixth over when Boult trapped Shikhar Dhawan (13) in front of the stumps to hand the visitors an early blow. In his next over, Boult sent Dhawan's opening partner Rohit Sharma (7) back into the hut with a caught and bowled effort. While Boult was breathing fire at one end - hitting young Shubman on the head once, Colin de Grandhomme struck twice - dismissing Ambati Rayudu (0) and Dinesh Karthik (0) - in his first over.
But, Boult wasn't done as he struck again to dismiss Shubman with his second caught and bowled effort to push India on the backfoot at 33/5 in 12 overs. Kedar Jadhav (1) became his next victim after a steaming in-swinger had the Indian batsman in trouble right in front of the stumps. Hardik Pandya (16) tried to hold fort for his side, but he couldn't stop a rampant Boult from bagging a five-for when the left-arm seamer forced an edge off the Indian batsman through to the wicket-keeper.
Only four Indian batsmen managed to score in double digits, while the remaining seven couldn't even score 10. Two of the Indian batsmen failed to open their account. And, the fact that Yuzvendra Chahal (18*) emerged as the top-scorer pretty much sums up India's outing with the willow.
The conditions at the Seddon Park were conducive to swing and the pitch further provided assistance to the fast bowlers, making life difficult for the batsmen, which probably explains why India lost all of their so-called specialist batsmen by the 14th over, reeling at 35/6. But, what was really surprising and equally frustrating for the Indian fans was the fact that none of the experienced campaigner showed maturity to hang in there and see through troublesome times - a job that Dhoni manages to pull off more often, than not.
Dhoni, over the years, has quietly gone about his business, bolstering the Indian middle-order. While most of the players in the world, like the Indian batsmen in this case, panic with the wicket tumbling at one end, Dhoni's calm and composed approach has allowed him to soak up the pressure and strike when the time's right - something that eluded India today.
On the other hand, at a time when boundaries were hard to come by and opposition bowlers were wreaking havoc, none of the Indian batsmen, unlike Dhoni, showed maturity to just rotate the strike and keep the scoreboard ticking. Dhoni also allows the batting to revolve around him as he holds the wicket at one end, playing the role of a sheet anchor - a role, sadly, no one was prepared for today.
Maybe if one or, maybe, two batsmen had stuck in, Indian bowlers would've had some cushion to play with. But, it wasn't meant to be. India's dream of securing a 4-0 lead - what would have been the biggest series win (across formats) in their 52 years of touring New Zealand - crashed as the hosts chased down the below-par score with eight wickets and 212 balls to spare.
While it was undoubtedly a much-needed reality check for India, the middle-order collapse endured by the visiting side once again highlighted how important Dhoni's presence is in the team. Dhoni's fitness concerns had excluded him from the game, but, still, his teammates could have surely taken some lessons from his past performances as to how to go about the business in such pressure situations.