Roll back the days to January 2015, and the Men in Blue were struggling to put together a win in the tri-series in Australia, also involving England. The batting scorecards didn’t make for good reading but there was something about the Indian attack. They were looking good, in terms of line and length, rhythm, plans and execution. Just as a bunch of bowlers that had been working together for the past couple months, would.
It showed during the ensuing ODI World Cup. Opposition after opposition was bowled out, with the thumping victory over South Africa at a packed MCG the highlight of their unbeaten run to the semi-final. It made for some wonderment. How many times have Indian bowlers outshone their batsmen at an ICC event?
Cut to October 2015. Just seven months later, the same Indian bowling attack was taken apart at will by South Africa. Mohammad Shami was missing from the mix and later R Ashwin joined the injury list but the rest failed to rise to occasion. Umesh Yadav, who was India’s lead bowler in the World Cup with 18 wickets, was dropped only after two matches as he squandered runs at 6.83 per over.
Mohit Sharma (6.93/over in 4 matches) and Bhuvneshwar Kumar (7.13/over in 5 matches) played a bulk of the series, and just couldn’t stop the flow of runs either. It came down to the team management arguing with pitch curators over a lack of help for their slower bowlers, an embarrassment in simple words.
Less than a year later, the high of a World Cup last-four finish is long gone. India prepare to take on Australia in their den once again, wondering what has gone so horribly wrong for them in the limited-over arena since.
“Against South Africa, our bowlers failed to execute their plans,” said Yadav before the team’s departure to Australia. “Fields were set for batsmen and we just didn’t bowl to them. Be it yorkers or reverse swing, we failed to control our line or length. Each of our fast bowlers went for more than six runs per over, and with five bowlers conceding as many runs we were made to chase 300-plus totals. Such high totals can't be chased down every match.”
After the defeat in Bangladesh, and losses in both ODIs/T20Is series to the Proteas, the Men in Blue are staring at a long limited-over schedule starting with a short Australian trip, the Asia Cup in Bangladesh and the World T20 at home. Indeed, there are many questions regarding their form and perhaps the most pressing ones pertain to the bowling attack. For, in the past 10 months, they have struggled even in the sub-continent.
As such, when the selectors sat down to pick the squad for this tour, it was obvious that they were targeting the remainder of the current international calendar. The composition of the ODI and T20I squad gives some pointers to the names they deem vital enough two months before the World T20 begins. Shami, Yadav, the recalled Ishant Sharma and an unknown quantity, Barinder Sran. Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel make up the familiar spinning lot.
“Conditions are different for the spinners’ performance in subcontinent and outside. Ashwin is our premier spinner and it is good to have Jadeja back. The two spinning all-rounders will be competing for a spot. Axar (Patel) has also played well in domestic cricket,” said Dhoni, in his pre-tour news conference.
“Shami has been a very good bowler in seaming conditions. We will see how well we can manage his workload with the World T20 Cup round the corner,” he added.
Two very vital points emerge from his words. First, Shami’s return adds penetration to the attack. Over-worked during the Australian tour last season, he was also the bowler with the most progress over the course of those four months. With 17 wickets in the World Cup, he proved his versatility with the new ball, in the middle and death overs.
Second, if Dhoni is targeting a single slot for the spinners, it frees up one position for Rishi Dhawan and Gurkeerat Mann. For long, the Indian captain has lamented the lack of a proper all-rounder and with Stuart Binny dropped it allows him to experiment with two fresh names.
Later, this experimentation ought to continue when Harbhajan Singh, Ashish Nehra, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Hardik Pandya will join for the T20Is. This merges readily with the first point. A hearty and fit bench allows the bowlers enough independence in their routine, helping the team management in its selection over a period of time. It lays down the basic groundwork for the bowlers to work on their skills, and the good part is, they know what needs to be done.
“Last time, we spent nearly two months there before the World Cup began, and we made the necessary adjustments. The use of bouncers was key for us. The grounds are very big, especially through the covers and mid-wicket, so if you make the batsmen play there, there is a chance to get them caught whenever they don't connect properly. We bowled really well during the World Cup, as a unit, and we know what needs to be done this time around as well,” said Yadav.
Perhaps the only major difference this time is that the Indian bowlers will have to adapt from experience as against quality time spent Down Under last year. It makes for a strenuous affair, for they have to adapt themselves to the hard, bouncy Australian pitches. That they will have to change back to sub-continental line-and-lengths immediately afterwards, only adds to their challenge.
And yet, if these bowlers can somehow manage this transition and come out of this 20-odd day tour with momentum and regained confidence, it will stand them in good stead for the months ahead. For, that World T20 trophy is the real prize for grabs this season.