If anyone doubted that cricket is a most difficult game for predicting the outcome, the India-Australia series that ended on Wednesday should clear his mind. An Australian team that struggled to win matches at home, leave aside games in other countries, suddenly found the strength and vigour to win an away series in the most difficult country – India.
The Aussies – beaten easily by men-in-blue in their own backyard – came to the subcontinent with no hopes of a victory. A 5-0 whitewash by the hosts seemed quite likely. The fact that Australia’s two leading bowlers – Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood – were not in the side made them look all the more hopeless.
When they lost the first two games, it all seemed heading towards a clean sweep. Then the glorious uncertainties of cricket appeared in all its glory to hand Virat Kohli his first home ODI series loss as captain.
It doesn’t need to be pointed out how important this series was to both teams. With the World Cup less than 100 days away, every match is of utmost value. Now that this 5-match contest is over, there are some very important takeaways that need to be looked at.
Let us list the biggest lessons we can glean from this series.
#1. ODI Cricket is Alive and Kicking
Ever since T20 cricket became a global phenomenon, cricket experts have been raising questions about the future of 50-over cricket. Some have even gone to the extent of saying that this format needs to be scrapped altogether.
In fact, while Test cricket’s viability is discussed most often, ODI cricket has been placed at the greatest danger of extinction due to the continuous negative commentary it receives.
This 5-match series should quieten the doubters for some time to come. What we witnessed was cricket of the most riveting quality. Virat Kohli’s majestic batting was there, as usual, but a lot more also.
High-quality pace bowling, skilful spinners, batsmen who employ power and also those who exude elegance, everything was on show. But the most important aspect of the series was the gripping nature of the contests.
The action kept everyone engaged and the story of the matches evolved like a brilliant movie or novel – full of twists, turns, sub-plots, set-pieces and great climaxes. Such kind of intriguing cricket can only be provided by ODI cricket which gives time for the game to develop but also guarantees a result.
It’s about time people stopped winging about 50-over cricket and started celebrating and enjoying it.
#2. India Are No Longer Masters of the Chase
There was a time some years ago when India was a team that no score seemed safe against. A powerhouse batting line-up with the greatest chase-master Kohli and the greatest finisher Dhoni had the ability to overcome any target.
The Indian team was able to pull off some of the most mind-blowing victories when faced with daunting scores by the opposition. Cast your mind back to the 2013 series between these two teams when twice, Indians chased down 350+ targets.
But things don’t seem as rosy now as they did then. Suddenly, the Indian line-up seems vulnerable when batting second and pursuing opposition’s high totals.
To some extent, this was bound to happen. As Indian players have become older, opposition bowlers are starting to find better tactics against them. Also, bowlers around the world are becoming more adept at the art of containing marauding batsmen.
But one major reason that has specifically affected India is the disappearance of Dhoni as a conqueror of steep required run-rates. MSD has clearly declined as a batsman and was facing serious questions some time ago.
He has regained his form but now seems a perfect man to shepherd his team in the chase of a manageable target which requires sensible play. However, when it comes to subduing escalating required run-rates, he is a shadow of his former self. Hence, Indian batting is more manageable for the opposition.
The combination of all the above reasons has made India’s tag as best chasers look a bit outdated.
#3. Khawaja and Handscomb Cement Their Spots
While the absence of Warner and Smith had rendered the Aussie batting line-up weak, equally troubling was the lack of any other batsman scoring big. Too often, contributions from the lower order were needed to prop up the innings.
But in this series, two of their batsmen were able to come of age in ODI cricket and provide the much-needed run-scoring strength.
Usman Khawaja is among the most elegant and stylish batsmen around and has plenty of good centuries in his Test career to prove this. But in ODI cricket, he was still finding his feet at the beginning of the series.
But the stellar run scoring from him in these five matches have proven his worth. The stroke-play produced by Khawaja was exquisite. The way he dealt with spinners was very impressive for someone who has struggled against spin in the past. Also, the manner in which he built his innings showed the perfect aptitude for this format.
Peter Handscomb, on the other hand, is similar to Steve Smith in some ways. He is a nuggety batsman who loves to use his feet against spinners. With a combination of resourceful batting and clever shot-making, he emerged as a highly-dependable batsman for the middle order.
These two have booked their spots for the World Cup. With Warner and Smith likely to come back, this Australian line-up would be quite potent.
#4. Continuing Confusion About Indian Middle Order
For the longest time, Indian batting has heavily depended on the top-3. With Kedar Jadhav coming up with impressive performances regularly and MS Dhoni regaining his touch, the middle order seems much more solid.
But there is still some confusion about two other places in the line-up. With Dhoni likely to keep wickets, there would be room for an all-rounder and a frontline batsman. Vijay Shankar seems to have done enough to keep himself in the team but who would be the other man in playing 11.
There are options. Ambati Rayudu may come back or Dinesh Karthik could be recalled. Hardik Pandya can’t be ruled out either as he would provide another very useful bowling option.
How about bringing back Ajinkya Rahane? Would India give Pant more chances? Can KL Rahul reclaim his spot? Is there room for a new name?
It can be said with some certainty that IPL performances would be looked at very closely. Not only the above-mentioned players but some other batsmen can also put their hat in the ring with impressive batting.
It would be in India’s premier T20 event that the last two spots in the national team’s top-7 for the World Cup would be determined.
#5. Indian Batsmen Have Become More Vulnerable to Spinners
Ever since the greats of the previous generation like Sachin, Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag started losing their form and eventually retired, Indian batting’s famed superiority in playing spin has disappeared.
Spinners around the world no longer look upon India as the same team that once dominated the likes of Warne and Murali. Many have filled their boots in Test cricket bowling to the contemporary Indian sides.
Even in ODIs, men-in-blue don’t seem to be as potent against tweakers as they used to be. The great success of Adam Zampa in this series is a case in point. Yes, he did bowl well but it’s hard to argue that the leggie is among the best in the world.
The fact that Indians gave him too many wickets raises serious concerns for the team. The way Indian players got dismissed against Zampa was suggestive of a decline in the quality of Indian batting against slower bowlers.
This is not an isolated occurrence. Good spinners are getting more successful against this current crop of batsmen from the country. Adil Rashid’s success last year also points to the same conclusion.
But Zampa’s success is even more concerning as he hasn’t been as good in international cricket as Rashid had been. The ease with which Indians once used to manoeuvre and, when necessary, attack the spinners is no longer visible. This increases the options of their opponents in the World Cup.
#6. Ravindra Jadeja Makes a Strong Case for World Cup Selection
In the last couple of years, the combination of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal has troubled batsmen in ODI cricket and played a key part in India’s success. But slowly, Kuldeep has established himself as the more dependable bowler.
While Chahal too has produced some good spells, Kuldeep has rarely led his team down and has maintained consistency. The former has also, at times, conceded more runs and been more successfully deciphered by opposition batsmen.
But now, Jadeja has emerged as the third wheel in this equation. His parsimoniousness and accuracy ensure that the economy rate very rarely looks bad. In other words, the left-armer provides great control in the middle overs to the captain. When the pitch offers even a little bit of help, he becomes deadly.
On top of that, Jadeja’s bowling was, arguably, the biggest factor of India’s 2013 Champions Trophy win in England. With such good memories of the country and the possibility of pitches in that country providing turn make him a very likely player in the squad. He might well be the choice for second spinner’s spot ahead of Chahal on helpful tracks.
Add to that his brilliant fielding and you have a player, selectors would find hard to ignore.