Perth, Australia: At first glance, this Australia-India series seems yet another commercial activity between two prolific rivals. But Indian cricket can never be without context, particularly with the 2016 World T20 visible on the distance horizon. As such, this tour assumes significant importance.
And on top of Mahendra Singh Dhoni's mind will be four words: sorting the batting order.
Ever since Rohit Sharma got injured in the ODI leg of the 2014 England tour, India’s batting order in limited-overs cricket has been in a state of flux. ‘There is no fixed batting position’ is the official line, and for a long time, this fluidity seemed praiseworthy.
The Indian team management has stuck a core set of players: Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina. Needless to say, they are the best batsmen available in the country today. The problem begins when you try to fix a square peg in a round hole. The first four names are all best suited to bat in the top-three. Add Dhoni’s waning powers, Raina’s poor form and a lack of alternate finishing options and the situation becomes murkier.
And as if this wasn’t enough, Indian cricket is always in a desperate search for a seam-bowling all-rounder. Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – both spinners who can bat a bit – are retrofitted for this job.
In this scenario, nearly every spot becomes a question in itself, starting from the very top. Dhawan is not nearly consistent enough to merit a long rope. Since his comeback in 2013, he has scored eight hundreds in 63 innings. He has gone past the 50-mark an additional 14 times. Yet, read the fine print: he scored five of those hundreds in 2013, and just one in 2014 (against Sri Lanka at home which bought him the World Cup ticket).
A hundred every eight innings isn’t really bad, but when you consider the long wait for each passing century, as Rahane is continually denied the chance to open, the cost increases manifold. Dhawan’s inability to make the home advantage count further goes against him. Look at Rohit at the other end; an ODI double hundred each in 2013 and 2014, and he was India’s best batsman in the ODIs/T20sIs against South Africa recently.
The one argument against Rohit is his initial strike-rate, but his output after getting set buys him that leeway. It also proves that he is not fit to bat anywhere lower than no. 3, thus posing the brightest spotlight on Kohli and Rahane, and their inherent duel. It is also the single-biggest question mark facing the skipper Dhoni.
If Dhawan-Rohit are untouched, and Rahane has proven repeatedly that he should bat higher up, then Kohli’s track-record comes in the way. But India’s best batsman in ODIs is currently suffering a bad run of form by his lofty standards. He scored two hundreds in 2015.
Furthermore, whilst batting at no. 4 in the last calendar year, he averaged a 9.75 in five matches with a highest of 12 runs. This is a ghastly difference to his otherwise career-average at this spot – 58.13 in 40 matches.
It almost seems there is reluctance from Kohli to bat at that position, except Rahane too has fluffed chances afforded. Recall the two counter-attacking knocks he played last year against South Africa – Melbourne and Mumbai, both at number four. Why haven’t there been more innings worth remembering? What is troubling this brilliant batsman that he hasn’t been able to adapt to this critical middle order position?
This is where Dhoni – and the question of his form – comes in. After the come from behind victory against South Africa in Indore, he spoke about the downside to him batting at no. 4, ahead of Kohli and Rahane. Yet he batted at four in the very next match, as India fluffed a simple chase in Rajkot. It was again a case of horses for course policy, bringing in a fluid batting order to counter tough situations. It could have worked but Dhoni’s finishing powers have receded considerably, and there is no denying it. Raina’s poor form only added to it.
The real surprise came in the form of Gurkeerat Mann not getting a single game against South Africa. If new players aren’t tried at home, how will they prove to be good enough? As such the selectors have forced the team management’s hand in this regard. With Raina dropped, atleast one of Mann, Manish Pandey and Rishi Dhawan is expected to get a consistent run in this series.
“If you see the success of the Indian team, we had quite a few players who could bat at different numbers, and very few who have been successful at nos. 6 or 7," said skipper Dhoni ahead of the first ODI in Perth. "We’ve had openers in first-class, batting at no.3 and those at nos. 4 or 5 ended up being openers. That flexibility and adaptability has to be there because you have to make the most of the number of overs according to the demands of the game. I don’t think giving a fixed slot really helps anyone. What helps is having a mindset where you take every opportunity as a challenge, and every challenge as an opportunity.”
All of the above reads fine, except of late the results haven’t been forthcoming, with the embarrassing tri-series Down Under before the 2015 World Cup, the loss to Bangladesh afterwards, and the home series loss to South Africa. The World Cup semi-final finish was largely down to the bowlers’ efforts.
With another World T20 looming, Dhoni has a tough task on his hands to prove that his method still works. On evidence of the last two seasons though, don’t bet on it.