India’s loss in the ODI series against Australia could not have come at a better time.
For a side rated as the favourite to win the World Cup, India has quite a few problems to address. Remember this is the first time India starts as favourites at the World Cup since the 1987 edition. Every other time India has gone in with a squad ‘full of potential’ but have never quite been the favourite. So the scrutiny is naturally that much more.
There will be a lot of discussion on the state of Indian cricket and whether the think-tank experimented too much. But the fact is that the loss in the series has given a reality check for the Indian ODI squad.
In fact, the indications that India needed to pick up their game in the 50-over format, were very visible twice in the last two years.
First when India lost both to Sri Lanka in the league phase of 2017 Champions Trophy and then to Pakistan in the final of the Champions Trophy. Both those losses gave an indication that the team needed to recalibrate their bowling options in one-day cricket. So out went the finger spinners – Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Very soon the white ball formats were headlined by the two wristies – Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.
Together the KulCha pair achieved a lot of success for India.
But there was again a red alert when India lost the ODI series to England last year away from home. Of course there were issues with Jasprit Bumrah being unfit and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar being overworked. The losses however showed that India could be beaten and that too by taming our middle over asset – the KulCha pair.
No Fresh Thinking
The loss in the England series, however, did not set us thinking again. We stuck to our own set patterns. Four consecutive ODI series wins to follow – Asia Cup, West Indies (at home), Australia (away) and New Zealand (away)– was a testament to the fact that India need not fix something that is not broken.
This is where the mistake was committed by the Indian think-tank, not just now, but over the last four years.
There have been warning signals since the 2015 World Cup that the Indian ODI squad has a lot of gaps which need to be fixed. But while everyone saw the gaps in the bowling arsenal during the Champions Trophy, no one seemed to have paid any attention to the batting line-up. Four years have been wasted in trying out options for the middle-order without any kind of thought on how to be consistent in giving chances to an aspirant.
Consistency – Need of The Hour
Remember the MS Dhoni formula? Between 2008-2011, India gave opportunities to Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma before selecting the champion World Cup squad. The result was that the younger players too were battle hardened when it came to pressure situations during the World Cup.
Contrast that with what happened this time. First we wasted two years with Dhoni continuing as ODI captain even after the loss in the 2015 World Cup semi-final. Then there was the confusion over the head coach position, with Anil Kumble leaving the role mid-way.
We thereafter presented a confused thought process giving out opportunities to anyone and everyone who claimed to be a middle-order batsman in Indian cricket.
As a result, we then followed a process of elimination and put everyone on notice.
So today Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina are almost certainly former India cricketers. Ajinkya Rahane has been tried and discarded. Manish Pandey and Shreyas Iyer do not know whether they are merely aspirants or in line to play ever again. KL Rahul is confused about his role, and Dinesh Karthik does not know where he stands. Rishabh Pant meanwhile is keen to show that he is the new Dhoni and has failed in every way that he has tried to replicate the deeds of the great man. Vijay Shankar is sometimes the all-rounder and at other times Hardik Pandya, if he is free from social media duties, is preferred. Two late entrants in the race – Kedar Jadhav and Ambati Rayudu – blow hot blow and cold at times.
So we are presented with a problem that we first started with when India lost the 2015 World Cup semi-final to Australia, just who is a certainty in the middle-order?
There has been no effort to groom a back-up opener and generally there has been a listlessness in the way the batting has been messed up. Four years ago Virat Kohli was the key to our chances at the 2015 World Cup, this time that same man is the only hope! More things change the more they remain the same.
Coming back to the bowling, India needs to yet again recalibrate its choices because there is absolutely no surprise factor. Almost all teams know for two years now that when it comes to ODI cricket, expect India to unleash the KulCha pair. India should have been smarter about using the wrist spinners, especially Kuldeep. There has to be a surprise element about your secret weapons, especially when you are in the race to win the World Cup.
Then with the pace bowlers, India have over-relied on Bumrah and Bhuvaneshwar, before bringing back Mohammed Shami. Almost the same process was followed with the pace bowlers as with the middle-order where a number of aspirants were tried without much success, before going back to Shami.
No Surprise Factor
India has therefore no surprise element in its line-up in 50-over cricket, unless of course they do a remarkable U-turn and recall Ashwin or Rahane. Most sides, especially in the lead-up to the World Cup or directly at the showpiece event, come up with a surprise.
Take the 1992 World Cup for example: Brian Lara opened for West Indies, Ian Botham for England, Mark Greatbatch started off for New Zealand with one agenda to maximise the early overs. Then Pakistan captain Imran Khan brought in two leg-spinners to win the 1992 World Cup and Martin Crowe started off with off-spinner Dipak Patel. Sri Lanka’s 1996 campaign was fashioned by the ‘devil may care’ attitude of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana. India too brought back a debutant Navjot Sidhu for the 1987 World Cup and the faith was repaid with four half-centuries.
Unless there is something up India’s sleeve that we are not aware of, we are set to be caught napping. Every other title aspirant will have some surprise element to look forward to.
England is looking at bringing in exciting all-rounder Joffra Archer, while Pakistan’s new speed sensation Mohammad Hasnain could cause a surprise. Australia is waiting with bated breath for the return of David Warner and Steve Smith. New Zealand and South Africa have a few interesting choices to make. Windies are looking to bring some more of their T20 stars into the 50-over side and Sri Lanka are always looking to surprise with their choice of captains!
With almost a month to go for the Indian World Cup squad to be chosen, there is almost an anti-climatic feeling to the whole thing this time. Therefore in many ways the loss to Australia in the ODI series comes at the perfect time for India.
If they have not followed any set patterns till now, there is no reason why India should be following the same in the final stretch.
Therefore be prepared to be surprised.
(Chandresh Narayanan was a cricket writer with The Times of India, The Indian Express, ex-Media Officer for the ICC and the former media manager of Delhi Daredevils. He is also the author of ‘World Cup Heroes’, Cricket Editorial consultant, professor and cricket TV commentator.)
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