The 3-0 defeat in the ODIs against New Zealand would have caused a few headaches in World No 2 side's dressing room, more so as they themselves inflicted a 5-0 series sweep over the same opponent in the T20Is, not a long back. However, the defeat should not hurt Virat Kohli and Co. But let's discuss first what did not go India's way before reasoning why there was a significant gain for Men in Blue, even if it dented their ego, a little.
India's ineffectiveness in the losses was due to the lack of form of many key performers. Indian run machine Kohli has suddenly found a blockade. Two clean-bowled dismissals should worry him more as they indicate lack of focus. Very rarely do you see bowlers uprooting Kohli's stumps. His issues with leg-spin has been haunting him for a while now. It all began with that Adil Rashid delivery in 2018 on England tour, that pitched on leg stump and turned sharply to clip the top of off, leaving the Indian captain startled. It was a good delivery but Kohli's inability to read it made it look even greater.
Kohli managed a total of 75 runs in the three games of the ODI series. He started off with a score of 51 in Hamilton. And history tells, he usually picks up pace from such failures at the start of the series. But he went downhill from there, scoring 15 and 9 respectively in the last two one-dayers.
If that was bad for India, Jasprit Bumrah's sudden dip in form made it even worse. He bowled his full quota of overs in every match without taking any wicket. That is a rarest of rare occurrences. It is as if this Bumrah hasn't yet recovered from the injury break. When you add the number of runs he has conceded — 167, the equation becomes even more baffling.
Kohli and Bumrah have been India's match winners of late, across all formats and with Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan not being there, India ran out of the necessary fuel to make the comeback in the series. But this loss does not govern the future by any means. The series, hopefully, is a start of something new and better shaping up in the team.
India's top order in the New Zealand series consisted of Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw and Kohli and it crumbled on each of the three occasions. Despite that, India were able to post strong totals on the board and that had a lot to do with coming of age of India's middle order.
Shreyas Iyer, batting at No 4, is scoring runs with utmost ease. He has worked hard to make his spot permanent in the team. And to do so in a Kohli team, is a great achievement, where you are indispensable and the team cannot do without you. To put it simply, Iyer has brought solution to India's Achilles' heel which was the No 4 slot and a big reason why India couldn't come close to the World Cup trophy in 2019.
It was not just '30 minutes of bad cricket' which stopped India's juggernaut in the mega event, it was also the years of failing to fill in a big hole in the batting lineup that surfaced and resurfaced every now and then. And it did when it mattered the most and it hurt. With MS Dhoni, the finisher, overstaying his time at No 5, the No 4's failure or limitations were ignored. There were too many thoughts floating around over the No 4 slot — try Ambaty Rayudu, then try Vijay Shankar, maybe Kohli can drop down to No 4, we can also see how Rishabh Pant does at that position. The ambiguity remained in the head about who Team India wanted at No 4.
And that ambiguity created imbalance in the team, which resulted in below par performances from the batting unit every time the top 3 failed to fire. The ICC Champions Trophy 2017 final loss and ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 semi-final loss were two big prices India paid for the same ambiguity. Then, Iyer was brought in post the World Cup and things began to take shape. And the Mumbaikar has shown great maturity in handling the responsibility since then. 70, 53, 44*, 103, 52, 62 are Iyer's last few scores while batting at No 4. He scored two half centuries in West Indies at No 5 as well. He surely is not going anywhere soon. And is given starter now in any limited overs Indian team.
Over the last few ODI series, the jigsaw pieces have been falling into place with KL Rahul also delivering the goods at No 5. And now with Manish Pandey, finally, being tried at No 6, India have managed to redeem their middle order. While how they go about in future series is uncertain and the recent results not going in their favour, there is at least, a scientific approach adopted to fix what is broken while investing in the right people. What is important is for how many days does the team management stick to this approach.
Team form is the last thing Kohli's men are concerned about as reflected in Indian captain's post match statements after the second ODI. Having the right combination and a solid core , where everyone knows their job, is what matters the most for India as far as the ODIs are concerned. And in this series, India have been able to find the right men for the right job. For such a long time, the onus was on the team management to create the right mix of young talent in the team and finally it is beginning to show. The fact that Rahul, Iyer and Pandey — products of India A investment — have a place in the team should be soothing for India. The selection issues have haunted India for long, with a six-ODI old Pant brought in to bat at No 4 during the World Cup and an uncapped batsman (Agarwal) flown in as a replacement for injured batsman.
With Hardik Pandya coming back from injury and Pant showing his worth again, the competition will surely grow, but hopefully, that will not lead to reshuffle of the Indian batting order, and rather work as having good options for key positions.
If India's bowling and fielding had not disappointed collectively in the series, the results would have been different. And that would have also highlighted the significance of this new Indian middle order. Kohli now needs to address the question — whether this middle order is another makeshift option or does he want to go on with this for long?
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