Sub-standard fielding. Bowling bereft of ideas, and back-ups. Batsmen hopping to chin music. One partnership keeping a semblance of life in the game. Still not enough to prevent a significant margin of defeat.
If you didn’t have a date on the scoresheet, it might have well been an India-Australia ODI from the 1990s or the 2000s.
Away from the many shades of the IPL, Australia’s stars rediscovered the gold standard in yellow, even as India found themselves in a retro-fit as they debuted their new retro kit.
The Indian men’s team didn’t have a day to remember as they returned to international cricket after 269 days – the longest such gap for India since 1991 – as they were a distant second to Australia at Sydney, losing by 66 runs to go 1-0 down in the three-match ODI series.
It continued, albeit with the lengthiest of pauses, a punishing run of results in the 50-over game in the Southern Hemisphere; the most recent assignment, back in February, had been a 3-0 blank in New Zealand – India have now lost four consecutive ODIs for the first time since January 2016.
A look at the takeaways from the first ODI of India’s tour of Australia.
Back in yellow, Australia’s stars strike gold
Four Australian batsmen were among the runs, and two bowlers took the lion’s share of the wickets. Anything in common? David Warner aside, each of these game-definers were coming into this home season on the back of thoroughly disappointing performances in the IPL.
Aaron Finch averaged 22, while striking at 111; Steven Smith averaged 26 and struck at 131 (remove his two season-starting knocks at Sharjah, and he averaged under 20 and struck below 120); Glenn Maxwell made as many runs in 11 IPL innings as he had in his last international before flying out to UAE, and famously ended the season with a return of zero sixes.
Adam Zampa could only pick two wickets in the three games he got; Josh Hazlewood played the same number of games, and returned one scalp.
Back home, back in their beloved colours, their world had gone through a sea-change.
In the absence of his new-ball nemesis Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Finch barely looked troubled as he cruised to a fourth ODI hundred versus India, all of which have come in his last 18 outings against them. Finch and Warner also extended their love for this attack – they average nearly 96 as a pair against India, with eight of their 13 partnerships in excess of 50.
Speaking of runs against India, Smith was surely waiting for this game even before he left the Rajasthan Royals bubble in the UAE; he averaged more than 60 from 15 innings, and his last three scores read 69, 98 and 131 – the last two of those knocks coming in India, earlier this year.
Even still, what Smith produced at the SCG was scintillating. The fastest of his nine previous ODI centuries had come off 89 balls; on Friday, after scoring 30 off his first 30 balls, he had touched three figures off 62 – the third-fastest ever for an Australian man in ODIs.
Then, there was Maxwell. Unable to buy a run – and galaxies away from a six – over two months in the desert, Mad-Max returned home to find pouring rain with five fours and three sixes in what was only a 19-ball stay in the middle. Maxwell, in fact, returned more boundary runs in 19 balls here (38) than he had through his 106-ball sojourn in the IPL.
Each of these three men had their reprieves, which we will come to soon, but take nothing away from their batsmanship; in varying roles, at varying stages of the innings, they just continued to keep Australia well ahead of India.
And then there was the duo that sealed the deal with the ball.
Hazlewood and Zampa – three wickets between them through the IPL – dismissed each member of the Indian top-seven. Hazlewood and Zampa: 20 overs, 7/109. Other Australian bowlers: 30 overs, 1/197.
Talk about stamping yourself on a game.
A fielding display from the dark days
Aaron Finch was on 51 when he tapped the ball to mid-on and set off for a run, challenging Ravindra Jadeja’s arm – among the riskier things to do in white-ball cricket. With all three stumps to aim at, and with time to lock and load the target (Finch wasn’t even attempting to get in the frame), Jadeja missed.
Steven Smith was on 38, off 33 balls, when he decided to take on Jadeja’s bowling arm – off the last ball he was delivering on the day. He didn’t middle it at all, and the ball was up in the Sydney sky for a long time. Long enough for Shikhar Dhawan to misjudge it’s trajectory and run in from long-on, instead of staying put. Not long enough for Dhawan to track back adequately enough to pouch it.
Glenn Maxwell was on 21 when he opted to go after a tossed-up, wide delivery from Yuzvendra Chahal. His connection was cleaner than Smith’s a few overs earlier, and to long-off. But just like Dhawan, Hardik Pandya set himself for a stride inwards when staying put would have meant a regulation take.
Those three reprieves cost India 154 runs – off 95 balls.
Later in the innings, there was also the made-for-2020 sighting of a ball going through Virat Kohli’s legs, ‘India Gate’ style.
Donning that slick jersey from the 1990s, India’s fielding, too, had gone back to the ’90s.
No bite in the bowling; no (real) back-ups on the bench
When this year ends – can’t we all wait for that! – there will be volumes that could be written on its dubiousness. Among the many horrors of 2020, one that might go lost in the sea of much wider-reaching blows, is India’s ODI bowling (unless things change drastically in the two remaining games over the coming days).
This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to India conceding their third-highest ever ODI total; it’s a rut that began well before our world came to be governed by masks and sanitisers.
In seven ODIs this year, India have leaked 6.45 runs per over, conceded nearly 50 runs per wicket, and taken nearly eight overs per dismissal.
Early strikes have been virtually impossible to find – the average opening stand against India this year is 123, and Sydney marked the first instance of India conceding 80+ for the first wicket in four successive ODIs. Unsurprisingly, India have lost all four of these games.
The bowling drought is best headlined by the rare lack of returns from Jasprit Bumrah. With figures of 2/360 from 66.1 overs, Bumrah the ODI bowler, much like most of the world, can label 2020 his annus horribilis.
What’s common to these seven games? India haven’t had a sixth bowler to go to (or, in the case of the two games where Kedar Jadhav played, opted not to bowl him).
This trend, sadly, extends to the days before 2020 too.
Highest total in ODIs with only five bowlers used:-
374/6 - AUS v IND at Sydney today
371/5 - SCO v ENG at Edinburgh, 2018
354/5 - SA v IRE at Benoni, 2016
348/6 - NZ v IND at Hamilton, 2020
337/7 - ENG v IND at Birmingham, 2019
3 of them are against India since 2019WC.#AUSvIND
— Kausthub Gudipati (@kaustats) November 27, 2020
This trend, sadly, is likely to continue till the time Hardik Pandya the bowler resurfaces – which, as confirmed again by Kohli, is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
In times of strife, teams look to the bench for inspiration. There’s not much to be found: Kuldeep Yadav averages 53 in ODIs this year, and returned one wicket from 12 overs in the IPL; Shardul Thakur averages over 50 after 11 ODIs, and concedes seven runs an over; T Natarajan, drafted into the ODI squad at the last minute as cover for Navdeep Saini, has done nothing exceptional in the limited career span of only 15 List-A games.
And there’s no way India can even consider the thought of an additional bowler. Think about it, really: can you have Pandya and Jadeja at five and six, in a team that’s already without its best-performing batsman of the last two years?
Hardik can’t play as a batsman? Think again
Honestly, it didn’t even need this innings at the SCG to prove it. Or the IPL season that preceded it either. The only thing Hardik Pandya needed to prove was his fitness – and fortunately for India, this member of the Mumbai Indians 2020 roster had done that well in time for this tour.
India were 101/4 in the 14th over when Pandya walked in to bat. That India were in with a chance – even if remote – 25 overs later, till the point he was dismissed, should alone do the talking for the detractors.
The notion of Pandya being a ‘slogger’ is rooted in misconception; any slight evidence pointing towards the same needs to be addressed with the counter-fact that, more often than not, he comes out to bat when the team’s need is for an all-out attack.
But his sensibilities as a batsman were at full display here. Seeing the precariousness of India’s situation – four-down inside 15 overs, still 270+ runs away from their target, and with only one more batting option in the hut – there was no scope for mindless hitting.
So he respected the pacers: 13 off 12 balls from Starc, 14 off 12 from Cummins and seven off five from Hazlewood. Marcus Stoinis, with his wiles, was the only bowler to keep a lid on him – conceding only 10 off 21 balls.
But the relative caution in front of the pacers was balanced by the carnage when facing the two spinners: Pandya belted 46 off the 26 balls he faced from Zampa and Maxwell.
Preposterous as the equation may have been all along, India were still 208/4 at the end of 30 overs – nearly 40 ahead of where Australia were at the corresponding stage of their innings. And there was only one man doing the heavy-lifting.
Pandya’s partnership with Dhawan lasted 21 overs and fetched India 128 runs. Dhawan’s contribution was 42 runs off 60 balls.
It’s an audacious ability of attacking that saw him become the Indian batsman to take the fewest balls to complete 1000 ODI runs – by a country mile.
Only four batsmen in ODI history have taken less than Pandya’s 857 balls to reach the landmark: Andre Russell, Luke Ronchi, Shahid Afridi and Corey Anderson. In this esteemed top-five, Pandya is the only one to boast a batting average above 30.
TL;DR: Hardik Pandya can play purely as a batsman in the Indian team. In any team, really.
India’s ‘settled’ #4 has something to worry about
At face value, there’s little wrong with Shreyas Iyer’s ODI career as it stands at its nascent stage.
He averages nearly 47, with a strike rate above 100, and has crossed 50 nine times in 17 innings. At number four – the batting position when it comes to Indian ODI cricket – he averages 50 and strikes at 98, with five out of nine innings seeing him pass 50.
And in India’s last assignment, he made two fifties and his maiden international hundred through the 3-0 defeat in New Zealand, becoming the first Indian middle-order (4-7) batsman to hit three successive scores of 50+ in ODIs in more than four years.
So, in all fairness, even a completely barren run in Australia shouldn’t necessitate a call for Iyer’s ouster – at all.
But here’s something to chew on. Six of Iyer’s 17 ODI innings so far have come against Australia and South Africa, and in those he has the more modest returns of 105 runs at a strike rate of 86.78.
Even still, it’s not the raw numbers that are the problem. His five dismissals in these six innings, in chronological order, have come to the bowling of Lungi Ngidi (twice in a row), Mitchell Starc, Adam Zampa and Josh Hazlewood.
Spot a trend? Yes, pace. High pace. High-quality pace.
After Friday, those raw numbers will be further compounded by the ghastly sight that Iyer was reduced to in his attempt to evade Hazlewood’s steep climber at the SCG.
He might have nine 50+ scores in 11 innings against New Zealand, West Indies and Sri Lanka – but rest assured, every bowling attack in the world is going to be training its guns at this evident opening in Iyer’s game.
Yes, we’ve all had more than a lifetime’s worth of the ‘hunt for India’s ODI number four’. But if Iyer is unable to address this issue, we could be in for more, sooner than later.
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