No team has consistently chased down huge targets. It is simply not possible when the situation requires the bowler to be lucky just once. On the other hand, key batsmen have to be lucky all the time in a massive run chase.
So it was with India at Lord’s on Saturday. A bad shot (Rohit Sharma), an error of judgement at a crucial stage (Virat Kohli) and a couple of great catches (to dismiss Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul) derailed India’s ambitions of conquering mount 323.
On the evidence of the two one-day internationals it seems like England are playing to a plan. Batting first and rattling up a huge total was part of that.
One of the strange sights at Trent Bridge and Lord’s was the numerous brown strips of pitches on the square. Was this also part of the strategy? In Trent Bridge, these brown strips went beyond the normal square. They were laid out almost boundary to boundary width. Unusually, even Lord’s had far too many brown strips on the square.
Major venues would have two or three pitches prepared side by side just before a big match. These could be as a choice of pitch for the home side or as a tell-tale of a recently concluded match. But it would be extremely unusual to find a row of brown pitches laid out during a major international match, the hot summer prevailing in England notwithstanding. Incidentally major grounds in England have practise nets outside the main arena.
These numerous brown strips ensured that the ball was roughened up earlier than normal. In the past, England’s bowlers had boasted that they could get the ball to reverse swing by the 15th over. No wonder their pacers were tough to put away, even as the spinners gained better purchase.
However, India lost the match a lot earlier when their fast bowlers were downright shoddy with their work. Umesh Yadav, the spearhead of the pace attack was way too inconsistent with line and length while Siddarth Kaul looked like a one-trick pony. Once England sorted out his knuckle ball, he had nothing to fall back on.
Hardik Pandya who is a support bowler at best, struggled even in that role. He urgently needs advice from some old English professional medium pacer who could teach him a thing or two about bowling cutters and utilising the width of the crease.
In the recent past, India were very well served by pacers Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami. Bumrah’s tough-to-pick action, Kumar’s late swing, control and understanding of match situations, along with Shami’s deceptive pace and movement made them a handful almost always.
Yes, they had their off days but batsmen were always wary of Bumrah’s slower ones, yorkers and cutters. Kumar did not have the fiery pace of Bumrah but made up for it with subtle variations of line and length. Shami, at his best, was India’s number one fast bowler.
It is India’s misfortune that all three are currently on the injured list. Their absence is badly felt, especially at the start of the innings where England’s openers Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow have given flying starts in both ODIs without raising a sweat. At Lord’s, they rattled up an opening stand of 69 in real quick time.
Umesh, Kaul and Pandya have been so ineffective in both ODIs that Kohli has had to press his wrist spinner into service in the powerplay overs itself.
Umesh seems to be sending down at least one bad ball every over while Kaul looks bewildered when his knuckle ball is smashed out of sight. He hasn’t realised that England’s openers have caught on to this variation and are actually waiting for it.
On Saturday, the three pacers, Umesh, Kaul and Pandya, between them bowled 28 overs and gave away a whopping 192 runs while the two spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal gave away just 111 runs in 20 overs and accounted for four wickets. There was thus a paradox wherein the spinners were economical while buying their wickets and the pacers were expensive and had very little to show for it.
Actually, if the pacers could pick up a wicket or two in the initial powerplay overs England would not be so smug while batting first. Right now all their apprehension is only about tackling Kuldeep and to a lesser extent, Chahal.
Meanwhile, Joe Root overcame his anxiety of facing Kuldeep with an excellent century (113; 116b, 8x4, 1x6) but it was the late flourish of David Willey (50 n.o. 31b, 5x4, 1x6) that shattered India’s chances.
In reply, much depended on any one of India’s top three batsmen staying the course. But that did not happen and India lost by 86 runs. Thus at 1-1 in the three-match series there is everything to play for in the decider on Tuesday. It should certainly make for interesting cricket.