Cricket is a batsman’s game so fingers will naturally be pointed at India’s vaunted batting line-up after the top order was scuttled for less than 70 in the first ODI in Johannesburg. Forced to confront the pace, movement and hostility of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and the rest of South Africa’s merry band of fast bowlers in a big chase, India’s top order was found wanting in technique (though not in heart) as the home side won by a massive margin of 141 runs.
But the real villain of the piece was India’s bowling. MS Dhoni was spot on when he said the Wanderers was not a 350-plus pitch and that the bowling had let the team down, particularly with the new ball. Neither Mohit Sharma nor Bhuvneshwar Kumar were able to find the right length – being either too short or too full - and wasted the movement on offer. That allowed Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock the time to play themselves in and get a feel for the pace of the pitch.
India's new ball pair also lacked a yard or two of pace, which was ruthlessly driven home by the South African quicks, especially Dale Steyn. Steyn’s ability to swing the ball at speeds between 140 and 145 kph drew rueful smiles from Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli as he beat the bat repeatedly. In contrast, Mohit and Bhuvneshwar allowed the South African batsmen that fraction of a second more to adjust to any seam movement and counter it. Steyn took 3 for 25 in eight overs. Mohit and Bhuvneshwar ended up taking 0 for 150 from 19 overs between them.
Only Mohammad Shami was able to make an impression, his ability to bowl at 140 kph earning him three wickets. But even he was carted around at the death, with his last three overs costing 41 runs for the price of AB de Villiers’ wicket.
While Dhoni praised Shami and said the two spinners also bowled adequately, the trio combined for figures of 3 for 188 from 28 overs. Extrapolate that over 50 overs and South Africa would still have ended up with over 330 runs. That’s simply not good enough. While Ashwin did end up as the only Indian bowled to concede less than six runs an over, neither he nor Ravindra Jadeja looked like taking wickets. Dhoni was therefore unable to build pressure in the middle overs to constrict the opposition, allowing South Africa the luxury of simply unloading at the end with plenty of wickets in hand.
Confounding this problem is India’s lack of options. On this evidence, and admittedly it is just one game, India need to replace Mohit with Umesh Yadav, who will at least be able to give as good as India gets in the short ball department. But Umesh has recently returned from injury and there is no clear idea of his form. The only other alternative is Ishant Sharma, who one could argue should not even have been in the squad in the first place.
This was the ninth time in 2013 that India has conceded over 300 in an ODI and the sixth in the last nine games. Against Australia the excuse was that Australia’s bowlers were being hammered too so it was unfair to single out India’s attack. In Johannesburg there was no such camouflage for the Indians and they have been exposed as ordinary.
In the two and a half years between India winning the 2011 World Cup and Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement, all the talk centered around how India would replace the Big Four in the batting line-up. It turns out India should have been worrying about how to replace Zaheer Khan, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh instead.
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