The good thing about a defeat is that it brings a number of issues out into the open. While some issues might be positives, others could be cause for concern.
Skipper Virat Kohli’s remarks at the media conference after the fourth ODI revealed the positives even as it sought to reassure fans that the management was on course in efforts to shape the team for the next World Cup.
Kohli backed pacemen Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami and said that they were right up there with the two rested pacers, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah. He drew attention to the batsman-friendly nature of the KSCA Stadium pitch and said that his pacers’ performance was on par.
The other was his elucidation of the hard-hitting batsman Hardik Pandya’s elevation to the number four spot.
“Yes, the idea was to go after the spinners and bleed the team. Hardik succeeded in that. He struck some really good blows to ensure that Australia had to bring back the pacers before they’d have liked to. Hardik needs to gain more exposure, experience and confidence to take the team over the finishing line. He’ll also learn that once he gets set he has to bat through. If he develops along those lines he could well bat at number four in future games too,” he outlined.
It is obvious that the manner in which the Indian team has shaped in Sri Lanka and in the ODIs here against Australia that some of the spots in the squad have been sorted out.
Of course the next World Cup, in England, is only in 2019 (May to July). In reality though it is just one or maybe one and a half IPL tournaments away. (It is unlikely that other countries would allow their players to stay engaged in the IPL right till the start of the World Cup.)
Thus, the fact that the skipper has backed his choice of pacers means that barring injuries, loss of form or emergence of fresh talent, Bhuvneshwar, Bumrah, Shami, Umesh and Pandya will be the core of the pace pack.
Likewise, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal should be front-runners for the spinners’ berth, with Axar Patel, among a couple of others, also in the shortlist.
Of course the three ODIs against New Zealand in October, followed by the six away games against South Africa in February and the three against England in July, should provide more opportunities to fine-tune players.
If the matches against Australia and the earlier ones against Sri Lanka were any indication, the opening batsmen’s slots have narrowed down to Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane and KL Rahul. The main contenders for positions like pacers, spinners and wicketkeepers too have been identified.
It is only the middle order that seems uncertain at this point of time. While Kohli will bat at number three, it is the slots for batsmen following him that look unsettled.
At least one of them, the number five slot, should go to a batsman who can pound the ball. Earlier teams had Yuvraj Singh in that role. He was a wonderful timer of the ball and could easily boost the scoring rate in a matter of overs, if not balls.
Of course Yuvraj, particularly in the fielding department, is way past his best. Pandya is the closest to Yuvraj’s style of batting. However, he is being floated around in the batting order as a disrupter of bowling attacks.
Thus the need would be to get some batting muscle at number five and possibly at number four too.
The issue at ODIs is that only four fielders are allowed outside the circle between the 11th and 40th over. It is during this period that the team needs to score at over seven runs an over whether batting first or while chasing.
In the Bengaluru ODI for instance, India were 65 for no loss at the start of the 11th over but only 240 for 4 at the end of the 40th over. The crucial 30 middle overs had yielded just 175 runs. That is, a run rate of less than six per over. This left the batsmen too much to do in the final 10 overs, particularly as India really did not have wickets in hand to go on an all-out assault.
Kohli and team, thus, would look to control and consolidate in the middle overs. This can happen only if the middle order has batsmen who are fleet-footed and capable of aggressive strokeplay. This would ensure that a finisher of the calibre of Mahendra Singh Dhoni can execute his job a lot more consistently at number six or seven.
Kedar Jadhav and Manish Pandey, who have been given the middle-order batsmen roles, need to step up in the next few matches. If they can score at a lot better than a run-a-ball and send out a message that they too can substantially hurt the bowlers they’d be in the mix for 2019. Else the net has to be cast wider.