Six days was all it took for India’s 2-0 lead turn into a 2-3 series defeat against a broken Australia. Six days that involved Army Caps, dew that showed up when it wasn’t due, a Turner special and then a turner special.
Did the conditions get the better of India? Most definitely - they had the rough end of the stick in each of the last three games. Did they take their foot off the pedal? It did seem that way, especially on the field, though no one would hold it against a side that’s been on the road for a while now.
The big question though, is whether too much experimentation cost them the series and leaves them confused leading up to the World Cup. And the sobering answer is - No, since India did not experiment more than they had to in this series. Here’s proof:
Ten Indian players have played over 40 ODIs since the 2015 World Cup: Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav. Each of them is guaranteed a spot in the World Cup XV, injuries notwithstanding. If conditions align, in fact, all 10 of them could be playing South Africa at Southampton in India’s first World Cup game.
That they have figured so prominently in India’s plans in the four-year cycle reinforces that India have built up to the World Cup perfectly. That all of them (barring the injured Hardik) featured prominently in the final series before the World Cup shows that they are this team's core, and were not knee-jerk with their trials during this series.
What India tried to do in the last three games was address a few nagging issues with their side’s set-up. The intentions were right. The approach could not have been faulted. The results may have been poor, but they have learned plenty from this series.
Problem One – To Rayudu or not to do?
India benched Ambati Rayudu after three poor games, during which he batted at No. 4. Rayudu recently had good returns in New Zealand, sandwiched between five successive failures against Australia. With just two ODIs left for the World Cup, his repeated failures warranted a switch.
The No. 4 problem has bogged India for a while now. The last time they had a settled No. 4, they won a World Cup. Back in 2011, Kohli held the spot behind Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir.
Rohit, Dhawan and Kohli have since taken over at the top, and India have just not managed to find the ideal man to follow them. Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Ajinkya Rahane and Dinesh Karthik have all had a go.
In Rayudu’s absence, KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant got chances and neither seized the day. Rayudu’s travails perhaps mean he will cede No. 4 to Dhoni. This may just work in India’s favour since Dhoni currently doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else, and it is clear that India need him behind the stumps.
Problem Two – Who are the Fifth Bowlers?
The part-timer has gone out of the game, and the hard-hitting all-rounder is a key component of winning ODI units. Think Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Chris Stokes who bat from 6 to 8 for England.
India have only one player in that mould: Hardik Pandya. Jadhav, with his bizarre, subterranean side-armers provides the illusion of a complete bowling option. This series proved that Jadhav is at best a partnership breaker, much like Sehwag back in the day.
His returns are a lot of like his action - you never know what to expect. India will need a seventh bowling option in their playing XI, potentially in the form of Vijay Shankar’s medium-pace.
Problem Three – What to do with Ravindra Jadeja?
He has not hit an ODI 50 since 2015. He couldn’t take a single off the last ball to win a game against Afghanistan during the Asia Cup, and instead holed out playing a daft shot. He is arguably the best fielder in Asia, and provided with the right conditions - such as at the Kotla in the final ODI - could be an unplayable bowler.
But an all-rounder, Jadeja is not. He got three chances in this series to prove his batting prowess, and failed each time. If Jadeja is to play, it has to be on pitches where he can be a frontline bowler. End of story.
Problem Four – The tail could do with some shortening
Australia won both the ODI and the T20 series thanks to sparkling stands between bowlers Jhye Richardson and Pat Cummins. Tail-enders have become better batsmen world over, but this doesn’t apply to India - most of their main bowlers are terrible batsmen.
This series reinforced this weakness, while the last game also showed that Bhuvneshwar Kumar is a happy exception to the rule. If Bhuvneshwar’s bowling doesn’t make him an automatic starter in England, his batting at No.8 certainly should.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar. (Image: Twitter/ICC)
Given what we know after this series, this could be India’s starting XI at the World Cup: Rohit, Dhawan, Kohli, Dhoni, Shankar, Jadhav, Hardik, Bhuvneshwar, Bumrah, Chahal and Kuldeep. This side has batting down until No. 8, and seven bowling options, three of them of the spinning kind. On wickets that promise seam, Mohammad Shami could replace one of the two main spinners.
Rayudu and Pant should stay in the mix as back-up batsman and keeper. The fifteenth spot is a toss-up between Jadeja and KL Rahul, and irrespective of which one of them makes the cut, this is an excellent squad.
Regardless of what went wrong in the last three games, India are still one of the frontrunners for the World Cup. Most bilateral series are forgotten easily in the endless churn of international cricket.
The results of this series, too, will be wiped out of memory once the IPL horns begin to blare. It is important, though, for India to remember what they learned here, for it could create better outcomes at the World Cup.
(Nitin Sundar is a full-time cricket tragic who yearns for the return of the wonderful ODI jerseys of the 90s. He is stuck in a Bangalore traffic jam and tweets @knittins)