The last time team India featured in ODI cricket was on 13 March. That was a gap of 72 days before the warm-up game against New Zealand at the Oval on Saturday. The Black Caps won in a canter, by six wickets, with India bowled out for just 179 runs.
What's in a warm-up, you might ask? Quite a lot, especially when these practice games are played in the build-up to a World Cup. For starters, India had trounced New Zealand 4-1 in a bilateral ODI series at their home back in February. Clearly, the Black Caps' scars have healed in full.
The Black Caps were in preparatory mode when India had visited them in February. They were experimenting and figuring out what they could or couldn't do. It was the same with India when Australia came to pay a visit later in March. Both hosts lost those respective series. Virat Kohli had shrugged off that 3-2 loss because India were in a similar preparatory mode. In the longer scheme of things, it didn't matter.
After an embarrassing collapse on Saturday then, will India be wondering the same? Does this loss in an inconsequential warm-up match matter at all? The simple answer is no.
This Indian team — and its management — is known to be quite forthright in their views. Time and again, they have had to shrug off losses greater than this. Remember the tour of South Africa or England? Both the skipper and coach have even expressed this "moving on" desire aggressively in press conferences. And they definitely don't need to bother as much about losing here.
In summation, knowing this Indian team, they will shrug it away as an off day in the knowledge that they are indeed a better unit than which put up a mere 180-run target on the board. Playing together after 72 days, in conditions different to the IPL, and batting first on a bowler-friendly pitch, they might consider it plain rustiness.
The problem, however, arises if they ignore the symptoms of what could be potential issues as the tournament progresses. Reliance on top-order: check. Number four issue unsolved: check. Middle order lacking in firepower: check. Spinners rendered ineffective on seam-friendly pitches without early wickets: check.
In the very first engagement of this World Cup summer, New Zealand held up a mirror to the various problems plaguing India's preparations over the last two years. At different instances, time and again, two major issues have resurfaced: number four and middle order firepower. When coupled with top-order failure and lack of penetration in the bowling attack, India looks like an ordinary ODI side, as it did on Saturday. It is the plain truth, even if it isn't the best pointer one week before the World Cup begins.
ODIs are different than Tests because batsmen have a greater say in the outcome of the games (thanks to ever-changing rules and flattening pitches). It doesn't mean that bowlers don't make an impact; they do, albeit with some help from conditions — in that ODIs are different than T20Is, mostly. The underlying point herein is about India's traditional strength. Eight (or even nine) times out of ten Indian batsmen will win ODI games for their team.
That number needs to be all the more consistent when it comes to a World Cup. But how do you manage when Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma are negated with early movement? When Kohli bats with intensity unique only to him, while the rest fall apart?
When the experiment at number four begins and ends again, and again, and then again, with KL Rahul despite his repeated failures? When MS Dhoni continues to bat deeper down than he should? When Dinesh Karthik throws away a golden chance with an ordinary shot?
Apart from Kohli, only Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja came away with some credit on this Saturday outing. The former showed he could bat in a different gear if there is a top-order collapse. Could he be a solution to India's number four conundrum if Kedar Jadhav and Vijay Shankar do not reach adequate fitness for the opening game against South Africa on 5 June?
Possibly, is the answer, and it is accentuated by Jadeja's free stroking half-century. Warm-up game indeed, but it helped India score enough runs to save them embarrassment in front of a partisan capacity crowd at the Oval. With the addition of his bowling and fielding skills, Jadeja becomes a viable all-round option should India want to mix things up against the Proteas. If Jadhav and Shankar aren't available, he should be in the playing eleven on 5 June, no questions asked.
In that light, no Indian player gained more from this game than Jadeja. "I have been working hard on my batting and am ready to play any role for the team. But I am not worried about the collapse today. We wanted to bat in difficult conditions and test ourselves," he said, after the game.
It puts the 'rustiness' assumption into perspective. Coming on the back of IPL, and a decent time off, the Indian cricketers need to find their groove again. Maybe not as individuals, certainly as a team, and this is worth pondering. Jadeja's spot in the playing eleven isn't confirmed. Did it inspire him more than others?
This is a double-edged question, one the players can only answer themselves. If 'yes' is the answer, then the lot of them were clearly lacking in intensity, which they need to quickly build up before the second warm-up against Bangladesh in Cardiff on Tuesday. If 'no' is the answer, then it is a simple matter of mentally turning their switches on. Maybe they know it, maybe they don't.
Or, maybe, they simply aren't thinking too much about it.
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