After the second ODI, in which Colin Munro was bowled by a Bhuvneshwar Kumar slower ball, Munro was a little lost.
Munro had been part of an experiment New Zealand cricket had undertaken to find a way to beat India with the limited experience they had of playing high-quality spin. They took one of their best batsmen of spin in recent times, Tom Latham, and put him in the middle order. Jack in the box, switch-hit expert, Munro was asked to open to make use of Powerplay overs and hurt India before they get into their favourite part of the game: when the ball is old and the field spread. This was Munro’s chance to find himself a more permanent place in the ODIs and also bring back some of the x-factor that left New Zealand’s ODI cricket with Brendon McCullum’s retirement.
Incidentally, McCullum was one of the bigger fans of the move to have Munro open the innings with Martin Guptill. He tweeted: “Massive fan of @manuz05 batting at the top with one of our best ODI players ever @Martyguptill. Ride the ups and downs, gun combo!” Not just for Munro and Latham, if it worked, this move could do wonders for Guptill by relieving him of the pressure of forcing the pace early so he can set himself up for the long innings that he loves.
Two innings into the experiment, Munro didn’t feel that good. His early hitting had surprised India in Mumbai, but two slower balls later, Munro had just 38 runs from 52 balls over two innings. He then texted the man who had tweeted his support earlier.
“It’s a funny one actually,” Munro said if he had had any interaction with McCullum. “After the second game I was… I wouldn’t call it ‘down’, but I hadn’t got off to the start I wanted to in terms of opening the batting. So I sent him a few text messages just asking his thoughts and let him know what I was thinking.
“He again came out and said, ‘No, you’ve sort of got a good record in T20 the way you play at the top of the order, so you can try and commit that same thing in the one-day game. Go out there and express yourself. Give yourself however long it takes, whether it is one ball, two balls or sometimes it could be three or four, if the bowlers are bowling well.’ So funny that you bring that up. Just before that last game I had a good conversation with him.”
It is not a surprise that this almost pinch-hitting strategy was not a runaway success. There is much two-way feedback between coaches and bowlers nowadays than in the 1990s. Bowlers are smarter; they watch a lot more footage than they did earlier. India quickly found out a way to bowl after Munro’s quick start in Mumbai: bowl short, bowl slow. To figure out how hard to go when the bowlers were not reacting to early pressure was the challenge for Munro.
“The big challenge for me was just finding a good tempo to bat at,” Munro said. “I like to say that I want to go in and try and blast off in the first ten but it’s not always going to be the case, especially when you’re playing against Bhuvi and [Jasprit] Bumrah. They’re probably the best opening bowlers in these conditions going around the world. It’s always a bit hard to start off. I thought I did okay in the first game. Second game, not so well but you got to take those.”
The chat with seniors reinforced the need to bat the way he usually did. He did exactly that at the start of the third ODI, chasing 338. He shimmied across to the first ball he faced and played a pick-up for a six. He ended up with 75 off 62, New Zealand nearly pulled off an incredible chase, and the experiment can be termed a success now, especially given Latham’s utility down the order.
“And then obviously just having a chat with the senior players in the team who said, ‘Just go out and take your Twenty20 game and see how it goes.’ Luckily, for me it came off,” Munro said. “Like I said earlier, there’s going to be sometimes pressure at the top of the order where you get good balls or sometimes just myself, by throwing my wicket away given the way that I play. For me it’s more a mental shift in terms of taking the good with the bad, especially in this game where you fail a lot more than you succeed. That’s the going to be the biggest change in mindset.”
Munro will like to carry on with that slot, hopefully in more batting-friendly conditions. “I hope so,” Munro said when asked if he is looking at a longer run at that slot, “because if I come out and not be so successful it won’t be good for the team. So whatever is good for the team. If that means me batting at the top of the order and bowling a few overs or working more on my bowling and coming through that middle stage, it doesn’t bother me. Whatever is good for the team. Might be different conditions here in India. Could get off to a good start, especially with the spinners in the middle.”
For the moment, though, Kane Williamson might split Guptill and Munro, who might follow at No. 3 in the T20Is. Yet, he will now get to do what they have all been asking him to do: bring your T20 game.