In today’s hectic international calendar, it is not often that you get a mid-season break to evaluate things. Why, it isn’t often that you need to appraise situations as such. But this change-over from limited-overs’ cricket to the ensuing Test series against Sri Lanka provides an opportunity to delve into the experimentation path that the Men in Blue have set themselves on.
“We want to use the next two-three months to figure out our plans in limited overs cricket, especially keeping the 2019 World Cup in mind. We want to finalise a group of 15-20 players and then give them a good run of matches before the World Cup,” Virat Kohli had said in Sri Lanka. It was in consultation with the selectors, and the Indian management went about changing the team dynamics without threatening their chances against Lanka, Australia and New Zealand.
So, with some time to go before the next ODI/T20I encounter, how did India’s much-vaunted experimentation process work out?
Pace and spin affirmation
It is the aspect under most scrutiny in this interim. In a way, the whole experimentation can be termed as a microcosm of the search for an alternative bowling attack. In the Champions Trophy, the dual need for picking wickets at regular intervals and developing a first-choice pace attack was identified. That the team management has been able to achieve so much in the span of 13 ODIs and 7 T20Is is impressive.
It began with the continued absence of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja from the limited-overs’ arena, allowing ample breathing space for the young spin talents to perform and grow. It is seen in how Jadeja was selected for the first three ODIs against Australia, but was ignored for selection in favour of twin leg-spinners in the playing eleven.
Kohli has looked to be offensive with his spin bowling options, and has played around with combinations available to him, preparing arguably a more potent spin force in Yuzvendra Chahal, Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav.
By the end of the Australia series, the same formula was put to use in the pace department as well. Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav were brought in, whilst Ashish Nehra and Mohammed Siraj were granted limited opportunities. In between, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah were a continued presence.
The growth of their pairing is intriguing. In the Champions Trophy, Umesh had opened the bowling in the initial matches. Bumrah’s elevation as a full-time opening bowler was born more out of necessity than anything else, and yet, his contrasting style with Kumar has paid rich dividends. While one exerts full control on the ball movement in both directions, the other is a master at variations in length and changes in pace.
“They have made a huge difference in these last couple months. The game has moved forward as a batsmen’s game in the shorter formats. When bowlers step up in the deciding games, it makes a difference,” Kohli said after sealing the T20I series against New Zealand.
If there is one criticism herein, it is in the lack of opportunities to other pacers. While Shami and Yadav have come into their own in Tests, they still struggle when it comes to white-ball cricket. Unlike the spin department, perhaps it was a mistake to continuously overlook these two.
One of the highlights of this phase is that team India will finish the year as it started — with a plethora of opening options to choose from. At the onset of 2017, KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane and Shikhar Dhawan were in the fray. As 2018 approaches, by some chance or coincidence, status quo has emerged. Much of it has to do with consistency on the part of Rahane and Dhawan, while injury and ill luck have hampered Rahul’s chances.
It is conjecture to assume that Rahul would have performed sufficiently well in the Champions Trophy if he had not been injured in the Indian Premier League, enough to eliminate at least Rahane from the running. As it turned out, Dhawan prospered in England while Rahane did his part in the Caribbean. So much so that Rahul had to be relegated to the middle order wherein he lost all semblance of form.
There is some room for debate herein. The biggest advantage of this experimentation is that Rahul’s ODI career is now set as an opener. Unlike Rahane, he will not be pushed long term into the middle, and instead will be allowed to regain confidence and fight for his spot in the team.
While India can never opt for more than three openers for any tour/tournament, with Rohit holding down one spot permanently, the onus will always be on the remaining trio to outdo each other.
There is a missing link in the bowling attack description. It is in the form of Hardik Pandya and Kedar Jadhav, on whom Kohli has come to rely heavily to complete his quota of overs. While Pandya has grown by leaps and bounds as the quintessential all-rounder, Jadhav’s case provides intrigue to the mix. He is the sole back-up bowler (read: part-timer) in the ODI squad and this dual role allows him a ticket to the playing eleven.
Despite the exclusion of Rahul, for a while, the team management was on the right track with Manish Pandey getting runs in Lanka. Two poor innings though meant another bout of experimentation and Pandya was thrust forward in the No 4 role. It was an odd gamble — one which helped beat Australia in the short term, but didn’t provide any long-term answers given his propensity to always bat in higher gears. The added inclusion of Dinesh Karthik and Shreyas Iyer in the New Zealand ODIs/T20Is has only added to the confusion.
So much so that India have now used seven batsmen at No 4 in 20 matches across both limited-overs’ formats since the second half of the Lankan tour. Oddly enough, MS Dhoni hasn’t batted at No 4 even once during this interim. It highlights how the team management wants to progress — a double-pivot in the middle order, with Kohli and Dhoni dropping anchor, and the remaining batsmen playing around/off them.
While they have been able to identify individual parts, the middle order is far from becoming seamless machinery. It is the underlining requirement of the next phase of this experimentation process, overflowing from the Lankan series at home to perhaps the South African tour. Any later, and it might be too late.