As Aiden Markram hit the winning runs in Paarl on Friday, South Africa completed a 21-day pummelling of India’s much-celebrated bowling attack. From Johannesburg to Cape Town to Paarl, four matches across two formats, this Proteas batting line-up has simply read the riot act to the famed Indian bowling line-up. The result? Two series lost in three weeks on a tour that was supposed to be some kind of celebratory final frontier.
When Rahul Dravid sits down to write his tour report for the selectors, he won’t be underlining the bowling attack as the prime reason. Weirdly enough, it is the batting that has come unstuck for India repeatedly on this tour, irrespective of the format. If batting collapses were in-season during the last two Tests, then this ODI series has been marked with a convoluted batting approach that is now simply too frustrating to watch.
When Virat Kohli got out for a stunning duck, the commentators remarked ‘there was plenty of batting to come for India’. It was a senseless statement – the score read 64/2 and India were two wickets away from having two-match old Venkatesh Iyer and R Ashwin at the crease. Of course, Rishabh Pant walked in to save the day, but only for momentary relief.
Pant is increasingly becoming an annoying batsman, in a good way. On some days, it is so easy to criticise his approach – try to smack your way out of trouble with some heroic over-the-top hitting. Often, it doesn’t work. But when it does, like in the Cape Town second innings or in the second ODI at Paarl, those who criticise him feel stupid.
He counterpunches with aplomb, and the runs flow easily. Bat comes flying off, or his partner escapes a foolish run-out, and yet, there is never shortage of action. Smack, bang, then Pant went as India crawled out of trouble against South Africa. His onslaught against Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi was straight from the left-hander against left-hander copybook. You wondered if the word "mercurial" was enough. No, it seemed like this was Pant’s world and we are just living at his mercy.
For the briefest period – 115 runs across 19-odd overs – Pant also provided what a proper Indian batting approach in ODI cricket would look like. He would walk out to bat at No 4 regularly, increasing in experience and confidence to tackle different situations. Whether he would come to bat after the top-order sets the base, or do a repair job after a mediocre start, Pant’s counter-attacking approach would accelerate or remedy India’s innings.
But this is not an ideal world, and India’s real-world ODI batting approach is weirdly fanciful. Sample this. Prior to this series, Shreyas Iyer batted at No 4 for 12 consecutive 12 ODI innings. That’s 12 out of 20 ODI innings in his brief career, yet he has batted at number five in innings 21 and 22 against South Africa. Why? Because, India like to maintain a left-right combination in the middle after Kohli at number three.
In both innings at Paarl, Shikhar Dhawan got out so Pant walked in to bat at number four. It begs the question – what if he had continued batting and Rahul or Kohli had gotten out? Well, Iyer would have walked out to bat on current evidence. This left-right-left-right approach is nonsensical at best. It confuses the batsmen, denies them the chance to gain critical experience at a particular position and makes the batting order look shaky instead of a properly defined one.
The underlying point herein is that both Pant and Iyer can adequately do the job at number four. Yet, out of the two, only one’s game (read Pant) is suited for the number five role. Iyer has no business batting that low, and it has further impact on India’s finishing capability. In Sri Lanka, Surya Kumar Yadav was auditioning for that role. Now, he is twiddling thumbs on the sidelines. While experimenting with Venkatesh Iyer is justifiable to an extent, should it come at the cost of benching SKY?
Iyer, Pant and SKY would make for an ideal middle order going ahead, especially if given time to grow into their roles. It could even be a throwback to coach Rahul Dravid’s ODI era, when he, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif manned those positions for the Men in Blue. Instead of following that successful blueprint, the Indian team is stuck in “vibes mode” for a long time now – let the top-order score runs and we shall see what happens!
Two matches running against South Africa then, this strategy has come unstuck. In the first ODI, Dhawan-Rahul got a start and Kohli built on it. The chase faltered when they got out because the unreliable middle-order couldn’t finish the job. Batting first in the second ODI, they gave a start again despite Kohli’s duck. Neither of the top three batsmen batted deep enough to make a lasting impact though.
Their strike-rates come under the scanner herein. Dhawan scored at 94.05 and 76.32. Rahul scored at 70.59 and 69.62, while Kohli scored at 80.95 in the first game. So much so, Rahul’s slow scoring rate even while Pant attacked almost undid the good work attributed to their partnership. Could Rahul have attacked more? Maybe, but his innings was representative of the safety-first approach of India’s top-order.
It is a trait similar to even when Rohit Sharma is available – India’s top-three batsmen all bat in the same manner, confident at building up the innings but never attacking enough to take the game by the scruff of its neck. And in doing so, they consume too many overs. Overall, this methodology is starting to get really tiresome and even a rebuilding side like South Africa is able to take advantage.
An accumulating top-order combined with a convoluted middle order thus has become India’s predominant batting strategy in ODI cricket. When it works, mostly in bilateral cricket, it does like clockwork. When it comes unstuck, it costs India a chance at glory – remember the 2019 ODI World Cup, or the 2017 Champions Trophy failure, for that matter?
It is now nearly five years that India’s ODI batting has been stuck in limbo, with no sign of awakening from this malaise. At this rate, the Covid19 pandemic will end before India sorts out its ODI batting conundrum.
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