India has played just 3 ODIs (2-1 versus England in January) this year. More than head-to-head records, ground statistics, individual batting and bowling averages and such, that is the one fact that is crucial to the team’s defense of the Champions’ Trophy it won in 2013.
In a press conference before the team’s departure, captain Virat Kohli suggested that the lack of match practice in this format is not a major worry. The IPL, he said then, has kept the players match-fit and hungry.
But – and you can bet your last chip Kohli knows this better than anyone else – there is a fundamental difference between maximizing your batting resources over 20 overs and making the same players last, at a good rate of scoring, over 50 overs. Similarly with the bowling – for a key seamer to come in and bowl two overs in a T20 powerplay, then one more in the middle and one at the death is a far cry from bowling five overs, maybe more, in sequence, and then come back and do it all over again at the death. How well – and how rapidly – the team adapts to this challenge will be key to the title defense.
India won the last edition of the Champions’ Trophy on the back of its batting. The most obvious change between then and now lies in the embarrassing amount of riches India finds itself blessed with in the bowling department.
Against England this January, India fielded Bhuvaneswar Kumar, Hardik Pandya, Jasprit Bumrah, Ravi Jadeja and Ravi Ashwin with Yuvraj as sixth bowler. Since then, Mohammed Shami has returned to full fitness and Umesh Yadav has ridden his peak Test form to a spot in the ODI starting line.
This translates into a problem of plenty. Quick bowlers have been hugely influential in England thus far, both in the lead-up games and in the three league matches preceding Sunday’s key outing against Pakistan. A logical lineup for India, given the conditions, would be Bhuvi Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Bumrah, Shami and Jadeja, with Yuvraj and Rohit Sharma filling in as relief slow bowlers in case of need. That lineup of four quicks destroyed New Zealand and Bangladesh in the warm ups, and looks to be the best possible combination, though it comes with the very real risk of weakening the batting.
Dropping Ashwin is a big call to make at any time, but the combination of English conditions and Ashwin’s own lack of match fitness (his last outing in any form of competitive cricket was back in March against Australia) make it a logical call. (That said, this is Indian cricket we are talking about where star power, more than logic, often dictates choice of personnel.)
It is the batting that is the weak link – and it is eons since anyone ever said that about an India XI.
Take it from the top: in his press conference prior to departure, Kohli singled out the Rohit Sharma-Shikhar Dhawan opening partnership as being influential in the 2013 win. But four years have passed since then. Sharma last played an ODI for India on 29 October 2016, and comes to the Champions’ on the back of a fairly pedestrian IPL season.
Dhawan, meanwhile, was not even in the reckoning for the January ODIs against England. Though he forced his way back with a glut of runs in the IPL, his batting in that tournament was several notches below the destructive best of his pomp. Again, in the IPL, bowlers both domestic and international worked out that Dhawan is effective only when given width outside off for the slash, and worked out ways of keeping him quiet – expect similar lines, in even more helpful bowling conditions, in England.
Virat Kohli is a player born for the big stage. Next in line is Yuvraj Singh, of whom the best you can say is that his best days are behind him. Then Dhoni, of whom you could with justification say the same. As a keeper, Dhoni remains on top of his game but as a batsman, he is more flash in the pan than the most dependable finisher in international cricket he used to be.
They say of sportsmen that often, their strength proves to be their weakness; that is clearly the case here. In his pomp, Dhoni would come in and shrug off the mounting number of dot balls, nudge the ball around when he could, and take the game deep. He was always the man with the plan – in his mind he was sure which bowlers he would target, and he had skill undimmed by age to walk his plan.
Increasingly of late, though, while he continues to take the game deep, it is when he is looking to explode that he loses his wicket, thanks to a combination of the slowing down of his fast-twitch muscles and the fact that bowlers have learnt to give him nothing in the length-and-better zone that suits his big-hitting. Even domestic bowlers, during the recent IPL, figured out that the best place to bowl to MS was back of length in that channel around the fourth/fifth stumps with backward point deep for the slash.
All of this leaves too much on the admittedly capable shoulders of Hardik Pandya, who for all his youthful exuberance is still untested in an unforgiving format where every game is akin to a knock-out. And yet the Indians will likely want Pandya to bolster the batting, even if it means dropping one of the four quicks.
A likely lineup reading Rohit, Shikhar, Virat, Yuvraj, Dhoni, Hardik, Jadeja, and four from Ashwin, Shami, Bhuvi, Umesh and Jasprit has bowling muscle but looks underwhelming from the batting point of view. And as it happens, India’s first game is against a strong bowling unit. A game against Pakistan is a nervy affair at the best of times; here, the Indian batting lineup taking on Wahab Riaz, Mohammed Amir and Faheem Ashraf in overcast conditions is reason enough for bitten fingernails.
What India has going for it is this – Pakistan, thanks to its isolation, has played even less ODIs than India; its batting is the weakest we have known a Pakistan side to be. A done to death stat is that in its last 13 ODIs, Pakistan have won just once when its bowlers have conceded over 250. Therein lies the weak link – and as it happens, India has the bowling fire power to exploit that chink.
Kohli, preparing to lead in his first ICC tournament, had in that pre-tour interview pointed to the obvious: In the Champions’ Trophy, unlike in the World Cup, there are no easy-beats.
It is an unforgiving format – two out of three wins is the mandatory minimum but if you want to put yourself in line for a final slot, you ideally need to win three in three and top the group so you get to play the runner-up in the opposite group.
Pakistan, ranked eight out of eight teams, has nothing to lose; India, as defending champions, has everything to gain. The first meeting of the traditional rivals in eons could hardly have been set up better.