After New Zealand completed a stunning six-wicket win in Mumbai on Sunday night, Sanjay Manjrekar had a very pertinent question for Virat Kohli in the post-match interview.
“Why didn’t you give Kedar Jadhav a few overs?” the commentator asked. “Hardik bowled well for us. He kept it tight and even took a wicket. If the game had drifted away from us earlier, we could have used him,” replied the Indian skipper.
It was an odd answer, in keeping with how things had turned out for the hosts at the Wankhede. Tom Latham pulled out the sweep from refrigeration like most overseas batsmen do when visiting India, and Ross Taylor shed his inconsistencies to play the part of the experienced cricketer he is. New Zealand kept up a keen tempo throughout their innings, but at no stage, they gave a sniff about their intentions to upstage the Indian attack.
Let it be said here that there was a sense of déjà vu about India’s bowling performance, rather about the ease with which Latham and Taylor chased down the target. It reminded of the nonchalant manner with which Sri Lanka had beaten India at the Oval during the Champions Trophy. Do you know the first similarity between those two innings? India had a below-par score at the Oval that day — yes, 330 runs were not enough on that pitch — and they had a below-par score at the Wankhede this time around as well.
The second similarity is more obvious. That day India’s bowling plan failed, so much so that Jadhav and even Kohli himself had to bowl a few overs. That was a trigger for the laborious experimentation that has taken place since. It happened again on Sunday, albeit this time it was India’s partly new-look attack and they were not backed up at all by any part-time options whatsoever. Even as Latham and Taylor kept the scoreboard ticking, you knew that New Zealand had it covered. The dew settled in towards the end and by then it was too late.
Let it be said here though that this is not about losing. Mind you, this is only the third loss for the Men in Blue in 15 ODIs since the Champions Trophy. Their preparations for the 2019 World Cup began only in Sri Lanka, so it is still only the second loss in 11 matches. Point is, they are allowed to lose one-off games whilst the Indian team management is still figuring out its options.
Even so, it is that last word — options — that is cause for worry.
There is lack of a coherent plan B should the first-approach fail. In this particular case against New Zealand — or even against Australia in Bengaluru — when the new ball bowlers fail to get breakthroughs, or when the spinners don’t plug the runs enough, India’s attack seems one-dimensional. When you follow a set pattern again and again with your bowling attack, and have found continued success, then at times you have no back-up plan when opposition plays well. And this is the underlying point herein.
Ever since, the two new-balls rule came into effect back in 2012, there has been a gradual shift in India’s deployment of part-timers in ODI cricket. At that time, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina were the options available to then-captain MS Dhoni. But with two new balls, Dhoni tilted more and more towards the usage of a five-pronged attack.
This development is clearly tracked in the build-up to the 2015 World Cup in Australia-New Zealand. Leading to that tournament, Yuvraj was dropped from the team, so Dhoni relied more on Raina and at times on Ambati Rayudu as well. During that tournament where India reached semi-finals, Raina only bowled in four matches (15 overs) while Rayudu was not brought on to bowl even once with the skipper mainly relying only on his five-bowler attack.
Since then, this aspect has trickled down to the present team under Kohli. Just look at the squad — how many part-timers do you see? Jadhav is one. Who else? Kohli can, but if he has to bowl, you can assume that India are not in a situation to win that game (refer the Lanka game at the Oval). Rohit Sharma can turn his arm round too, though he is even less of a bowler than Kohli. Even among the fringe players, Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer, Karun Nair, etc. — nobody bowls with any certifiable assurance.
In the limited-overs’ arena — to a large extent in ODIs and to a limited extent in T20s — the Indian team management sorely lacks game changers in the bowling department. What happens when Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah cannot provide early breakthroughs? Jadhav can fill in when Pandya goes haywire, yet that only fills in the fifth-bowler quota. And the spinners are still gaining experience.
If plan A — with this regular five-pronged attack fails like it did at the Wankhede on Sunday — there simply is a lack of all-rounders like Yuvraj or Raina who can turn their arm over and provide a second line of attack. There are, simply put, no reliable options — none, zilch, nada.