Vidarbha Cricket Association (VCA) has garnered unwanted controversy and flak over the last few years. While, the 'poor' pitch in the third India-South Africa Test resulted in an official ICC warning, the humiliation of the 79-run all-out loss against an unfancied New Zealand angered fans, not because India were losing, but because there was no contest. They started exiting the stadium during the game. It was an unfortunate sight and the VCA officials were left red-faced.
Those events, however, seem to have been buried in the past by spectators. It has been four years since Nagpur last hosted an ODI. The last 50-over game was in 2013 and it featured the same opposition. It was a humdinger of sorts as India chased down 350 in the final over. So naturally, people's enthusiasm is running high in the city.
"Keep a buffer of one hour if you want to reach the stadium at time," Chandrakant Deshpande, a regular at both Vidarbha Cricket Association Ground and the VCA stadium since 1991, warned me when I asked him about Nagpur's passion for cricket.
From witnessing the sorry end of Vinod Kambli's Test career in 1994 to the rise of the Indian triumvirate in 2013 — Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli — Deshpande, a former state-level umpire has seen it all. Internationals or not, it didn't matter, he also visits the stadium along with a couple of thousand others to watch Vidarbha play in the Ranji Trophy.
"The excitement has increased abundantly in the last six to eight years, since the city started hosting ODIs," Deshpande told Firstpost. "It is so much that you will see a flood of cars travelling towards stadium tomorrow," he added.
To maintain such zeal and to avoid what happened during the 2016 World T20, VCA have relaid a new pitch and curator Pravin Hignikar promised that it will be a ‘sporting’ wicket and said that “it will be a good pitch as far as the spectators are concerned.”
Before the series began, almost everyone, from former cricketers to experts, predicted a 3-2 scoreline. But the dominance of Virat Kohli’s team in the first three ODIs made people wonder whether this Australian team had it in them to even register a consolation win.
The Australian bowlers clicked in all the matches, but the batsmen seemed to be in hibernation mode and subsumed in the Ashes.
The talk before the fourth ODI was not whether Australia would end their dismal away record but about India’s nine-match winning streak and the potential of stretching it to 10. This encapsulated how the odds were stacked up against the visitors.
However, the situation changed drastically in Bengaluru. Playing his 100th ODI, David Warner started in a swashbuckling manner and compiled a magnificent ton.
Having rested Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and Kuldeep Yadav, Kohli was forced to turn to Kedar Jadhav, who had not yet bowled in the series. Jadhav might have snared the southpaw’s wicket eventually, but Warner had succeeded in putting India’s bowling on the back foot for the first time in the series. Thanks to his knock, Australia finally emerged victorious in an ODI for the first time since January 2017.
Besides the odd jokes that circulated on social media after Smith dropped Glenn Maxwell and brought back Matthew Wade, that decision was a statement that reputation didn’t matter if runs deserted a batsman. Australia are setting the tone clearly for the under-fire batsmen: start scoring or get dropped as Wade too seems to have received an ultimatum from selectors.
“My performance has been summed up by me getting dropped in the third game, so there is no point sitting up here and thinking about what has already happened, my form with the bat has not been good enough. The selectors have told me that I need to score runs if I need to be picked,” the Australian wicketkeeper told reporters.
Whether these pressure tactics work or not remains to be seen, but Australia have a fantastic chance of avenging the 2013 loss and proving their detractors wrong. While, Smith had clearly stated that winning the series was the aim, he can be proud of his team if they bounce back from 3-0 to 3-2.
India started the Sri Lanka tour with questions over the No 4 spot and those are still lingering ahead of the fifth ODI. KL Rahul wasn’t given a long run, Manish Pandey didn’t make the full use of his opportunities earlier but then stormed back to form in his new role as the finisher.
The Hardik Pandya experiment in the previous fixture displayed how it can have consequences. Sending Pandya two down unwittingly pushes MS Dhoni at seven. It is no secret that Dhoni finds it difficult to be the calm and audacious finisher that he was in his prime. Interestingly, even the team management had realised that during the England series and Champions Trophy but still Dhoni was asked to strike from the word go in the last match.
If the team management think Pandya can grab that vacant spot in the middle order, so be it. But at the same time, they have to address the Dhoni issue and come up with a solution, which ideally would see Dhoni at five, Pandey at six and Jadhav at seven.
As much as the final ODI match is about the contest between India and Australia, it is also a test for VCA. Can they put behind the ghosts of that 2015 Test and redeem themselves?