Did India err in team selection? Maybe, yes. Maybe, no!
Scene 1: On 3 June at The Oval, chasing South Africa’s 299/6, Sri Lanka made a stunning start to their innings as Niroshan Dickwella and Upul Tharanga added 69 off 50 balls for the opening wicket. It unsettled the Proteas’ opening bowlers, and they clawed their way back into the game through the experience of Morne Morkel and Chris Morris.
Lanka kept up the tempo though, and were placed at 116/3 in the 18th over, scoring at 6.44 runs per over, when they needed six runs per over from the very beginning. They went on to lose the match by 96 runs. Why? Imran Tahir took 4/27 and broke their middle order, and there was no coming back for the chasing side.
Scene 2: Five days later, on Thursday, chasing India’s 321/6, Lanka were reduced to 11/1 but recovered well enough. Danushka Gunathilaka and Kusal Mendis put on 159 runs for the second wicket, scoring at 6.86 runs per over, against a required rate of 6.44.
The turning point of the game came when Ravindra Jadeja – India’s lone spinner – came on to bowl in the 18th over. With only four fielders outside the circle, Gunathilaka and Mendis targeted open areas in the field against the left-arm spinner, particularly deep midwicket, as Jadeja was carted for 36 runs in his first four overs.
This attacking start has been a unique feature of the Lankan batting in this 2017 Champions Trophy. Everyone, from England to Bangladesh to South Africa to India and so on, have made sedate starts to their innings. The common approach has been to see off the two new balls, and then up the ante later on with wickets in hand. India, with Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli manning the first 20-25 overs, have nearly perfected this plan.
Lanka’s attempts at chasing stand out, thus. It is a high-tempo approach, where the batsmen have to play fearlessly, believing in only the attack mode at all times. It is a young batting line-up, trying to come to terms with the dual loss of stalwarts Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. For them, this is as much about learning experience as about adventurism.
And so, the outcome of this approach can be two-fold. On certain days, it will not work, like against South Africa as Tahir ran through them. On other days, it will work, as Lanka shocked India to chase down 322 with eight balls to spare, turning Group B on its head in doing so.
After the seven wicket loss, Kohli came out and admired the way Lanka played. At the back of his mind though, the Indian skipper will be wondering just how did his side manage to lose the match. Maybe, if it were England and South Africa chasing 320-plus, or even Australia, you could consider it an unsafe target. Struggling to defend a tall score like this against an inexperienced Lankan side needs some intense head scratching.
“We have played against India many times, and we know their game well. We had our plans against them and it was all about execution,” said Dickwella after the game. His words focus the spotlight brightly on Jadeja’s spell. On a placid track, the left-arm spinner was never going to control proceedings. He was looking to do what he does best – restrict the scoring. By attacking him, the Lankan batsmen laid down the marker. They were going after team India’s one inherent weakness.
Ever since the Champions Trophy squad was announced, the balance in this Indian squad was heavily skewered in favour of pace. The 'Men in Blue' came to England with only two spinners in Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin. While eyebrows were raised when the latter sat out the Pakistan game, a 124-run win in Birmingham shut up any doubters.
Naturally, it was expected that Kohli would line up the same playing eleven, particularly with the weather forecast predicting grey clouds hovering over The Oval all Thursday (and rightly so). There was conviction in this selection call. This Indian pace attack has been talked up a lot, especially with Hardik Pandya coming into his own. Through his captaincy across formats over the last two years, Kohli has shown a penchant to pick his eleven according to oppositions and conditions. Let it be said here that this playing eleven was par for the course.
It is to the Lankan batsmen’s credit thereafter that they showed up what Pakistan couldn’t do on Sunday. They attacked, and attacked, relentlessly, almost in a nothing-to-lose mode and for once it worked. Once Jadeja was hit out of the attack, India had no one to fall back upon. Kedar Jadhav and Yuvraj Singh were two spin options, yes. But this is the first time Jadhav is playing international cricket in England, and his overall demeanour – whether with bat, ball or in the field – so far has been one of struggle.
“With Jadeja going for runs, we (Dhoni and I) decided that Yuvraj was not the best option. So we went with Jadhav. I bowled some seamers as well as they could have unsettled the batsmen. I think we covered up (the part-timer role) pretty well,” said the skipper after the loss.
The thing is, if India have to rely on Kohli – who has only bowled sparingly in his nine-year career – to deliver a few overs, then it means they are in deep trouble. And so it was the case for Kohli didn’t have enough backup bowling to rely on. This is where the selection policy comes back into the picture.
By picking the lone spinner, the Indian team restricted their attack to a one-dimensional approach. Sure, Jadeja errs rarely in terms of economy but this was one aspect that the Lankan batsmen highlighted and they hit India hardest where it hurt the most. Once Jadeja was taken for runs, Kohli had no one to fall back upon, reliably. That last word is the most important herein.
Ever since the advent of two new balls from both ends, this Indian team has deployed five bowlers in ODI cricket. Three pacers and two spinners has been the norm, from Dhoni’s time, and Kohli broke that norm by picking only Jadeja along with three pacers and Pandya. In this time, India haven’t really nurtured any part-timer options really, unlike the pre-2013 years when Dhoni would consistently throw the ball to the likes of Yuvraj and Suresh Raina. In fact, there is no one in this Indian Champions Trophy squad who is a consistent and reliable part-time bowler at present.
In summation then, Pandya’s relative inexperience at handling such intense situations, Jadeja’s poor showing, and Lankan batsmen’s adventurism together combined on Thursday to make a lethal concoction that now has India teetering on the edge of elimination from this tournament. It begs the question – did Kohli err in not picking Ashwin for a second game running? Maybe, no, given both the opposition and playing conditions. Maybe, yes, given the thrashing handed out to the Indian bowlers.
Hindsight is well and good, and the Indian skipper will be juggling with this very question until Sunday, when they face South Africa in a do-or-die clash.