For India, the humiliation was complete in Delhi. A depleted Australian team playing in India could come back from a deficit of 0-2 to win the series by 3-2. A remarkable achievement by Australia. In the process, they became only the fourth team to win a series after being 2 down.
For India, this was the first time they lost a series at home since 2015 and the first ODI series loss for Kohli at home. The last time India lost 3 consecutive ODIs at home was way back in 2009 incidentally against Australia.
History suggests that whenever India failed in a series just before the World Cup, they had learnt from their mistakes and went on to put up a better performance in the World Cup that followed. In the tri-series in Australia before World Cup 2015, India failed to register a single win but in World Cup 2015 they were unbeaten until the semi-final against Australia.
Before the World Cup in 2011, India lost the ODI series in South Africa by a margin of 3-2. Later India went on to win the World Cup at home.
India went into World Cup 2007 with a lot of confidence after beating both West Indies and Sri Lanka in the ODI series at home. But they were knocked out of the tournament in the preliminary rounds itself.
India had a horror tour of New Zealand just before World Cup 2003 where they were thrashed by a margin of 5-2. But after that humiliation, India managed to reach the finals of World Cup 2003.
In all the above events, India could learn from mistakes and recover in time for the World Cup. But the big question now is whether the current Indian team under Virat Kohli is willing to learn from the mistakes. It is highly unlikely if one were to go by Virat Kohli’s statement after the series loss to Australia.
Kohli still feels that there is only one spot left to be filled up for the World Cup. He is also categorical in his opinion that the form and performances of players in the forthcoming IPL should not be considered for the World Cup selection. It remains to be seen whether this fixed mindset would produce the desired results for India in the World Cup
Now that the damage has been done already in the Australian series, it is now time to look ahead to identify solutions for both old and new problems before the start of the World Cup.
There are some old problems for India for which no solution is arrived at so far.
# The No 4 position in the batting order
#The absence of a sixth bowler
# The absence of a finisher
# The absence of a fourth seamer
While the old problems continue to haunt India, some new issues have surfaced in the just-concluded ODI series against Australia.
# Inconsistent middle-order – In the absence of MS Dhoni for the last two ODIs, the Indian middle-order looked brittle. The failure of the Indian middle-order to force the pace against the Aussie spinners was quite evident.
# Inability to chase down targets - Though Kohli claims India to be the best chasing side, their recent records don’t suggest so. Whenever the other side posted a score of beyond 250, India struggled to chase even on helpful batting conditions. The failure of the openers followed by the inconsistent middle-order didn’t help India’s cause. It is a pity to note that even on home turf India has to rely on winning the toss to win the match.
# The failure of the wrist-spinners – Playing two wrist-spinners in tandem hasn’t been as effective as in the past even in home conditions. The wrist-spinners travelled the distance making them an expensive option.
# The insecurity behind the wickets - Pant’s presence in the last two ODIs has created a sense of insecurity for the Indian spinners behind the wicket. The results of the series could have been different had Pant been more alert behind the wickets.
Potential answers to the old and new problems
Dhoni at No 4 with Ajinkya Rahane as back up
India tried so many options in the past to fill in the No 4 spot but with no desirable outcome. Rayudu had repeated failures while Rahul hasn’t been given enough opportunities both as an opener and at No 4. Even in the limited opportunities that he got, he has been less impressive.
At this juncture, the better option for India would be to push MS Dhoni at No 4 and to accommodate Vijay Shankar in the middle-order. That would give more time for Dhoni to settle down in his innings. Moreover, Dhoni’s presence at No 4 would also give a more settled look to the Indian top order.
Ajinkya Rahane could be the backup option for the No 4 position as well as the reserve opener. Though Rahane is short of match practice, he has the experience of 90 ODIs behind him. Rahane could look into the IPL for some match practice. Aside, India is at present short of fielders like Ajinkya Rahane to man the boundary in the end overs.
Vijay Shankar as the sixth bowling option
With the likely return of Hardik Pandya for the World Cup, India’s five main bowlers would be Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Hardik Pandya and one of the two wrist-spinners. By accommodating Vijay Shankar in the team in place of Ambati Rayudu, India could extract 4 or 5 overs from him. Then there is Kedar Jadhav to roll his arm over on slow wickets.
With this combination, India would have plenty of options in bowling, though the batting looks a bit thin. But that is the way to go for India in the World Cup. Packing the team with batsmen like Ambati Rayudu and KL Rahul who don’t bowl would worsen the problem.
At Delhi, India could restrict Australia to 272 from 175 for 1 because India had 5 regular bowlers. Whereas at Mohali, India could not defend 358 since they went into the match with only 4 regular bowlers.
From the Australian series, it is evident that Vijay Shankar and Kedar Jadhav could at best be India’s sixth and seventh bowling options in case one of the 5 regular bowlers has a day off.
Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya as the new finishers
With Dhoni unlikely to play the role of the finisher any more, it is now time for Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya to don this role batting at No 6 and 7 respectively. Vijay Shankar too could come in handy in this role if the top 4 in the batting order have an extended stay at the wicket.
Kedar Jadhav is a street smart cricketer who is best suited for the role of the finisher if he gets some support from the other end. It should come from Hardik Pandya with his aggressive intent. Not to forget Bhuvneshwar Kumar who can stick around.
But it is the top 4 who should come good match after match if Kedar Jadhav and Pandya have any realistic chance of playing their roles as finishers. Though Jadhav has proved in the past that he could play long innings while chasing, the same thing can’t be said of Pandya.
Pandya could be an effective finisher if the target is in sight. At the same time, he can’t sustain his aggression over a longer period of time. But Pandya is an effective option while batting first.
Ravindra Jadeja as back up for the wrist-spinners
In the series against Australia, both Kuldeep and Chahal played together in only one match at Mohali. Both the wrist-spinners combined together gave away 144 runs in 20 overs for one wicket. A lot of that could be attributed to the dew factor and the missed stumping. In spite of all that, the one bowler that India missed the most at Mohali was Jadeja. Though Kuldeep was amongst the wickets in the series, he was not so dominant.
Jadeja is one bowler who could weave a web around the batsmen when they are confronted with a big total on the board. A steady bowling spell from Jadeja could have turned the tide in India’s favour at Mohali.
Before the Australian series started, there was enough debate as to whether Jadeja should be in the World Cup squad as the third spinner. Now the performances of the wrist-spinners made it necessary for Jadeja to be present in the World Cup squad as the backup spinner and the backup all-rounder and the first choice substitute fielder.
Dinesh Karthik for Rishabh Pant
In the two matches that he played, Pant has not inspired any confidence with the glove. There is always uncertainty as to whether the ball would find Pant’s gloves or not. Besides, with the bat, Pant could bat only on top gear irrespective of the match situation. This has compounded India’s problems. Though the ever-reliable Dhoni will be back for the World Cup, the presence of a superior second keeper in the squad is a must for the World Cup.
In the present scenario, Dinesh Karthik seems to be a better option as the second keeper than Rishabh Pant. He has wealth of experience behind him and a safe option in an important tournament like the World Cup. Pant’s time would certainly come after the World Cup.
The fourth seamer
India tried Khaleel Ahmed, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Siraj and Siddarth Kaul as fourth seamer option. But none of them showed any inclination to be part of the World Cup squad. If India has to go for the experience, there is Umesh Yadav and for variety, there is Khaleel Ahmed.
Instead of searching for something which is not there, India could still manage with 3 main fast bowlers, Hardik Pandya, the 3 spinners, Vijay Shankar and Kedar Jadhav as the part-time options.
The other problems like the inconsistency of the openers and inability to chase are all interrelated problems which will be automatically resolved once India’s batting starts clicking as a unit.
To sum up, captain Virat Kohli and the team management should cast off the " all is well" approach and recognise the presence of these inadequacies and should base their selection as an answer to these problems.