Sometimes, a setback is just the recipe to trigger a reality check. Sadly, the facts that followed India’s resounding 43-run defeat in the third ODI against the West Indies were cause for depression.
For starters, the absence of a balanced playing eleven is a massive bug bear. Skipper Virat Kohli admitted as much in the post-match comments when he said that the team missed the services of all rounders Hardik Pandya and Kedar Jadav.
This inability to field a balanced playing eleven will hit the team not just in the remaining two ODIs, but also in Tests and ODIs in Australia. It is for this reason that an early defeat must be welcomed as it would surely enable the management to take corrective measures sooner rather than later.
In the past, when ODIs were played under a different set of rules, teams could get away with fielding a couple of bits-and-pieces cricketers.
However, current rules are a lot less forgiving. They permit a maximum of four fielders outside the circle in the first 40 overs. Additionally, there are two white balls, one from each end, in use, which has ensured that the ball stays hard throughout the match and could therefore be whacked out of the park with ease. These factors have discouraged teams from squeezing in part-time bowlers.
Batsmen size up an attack and are instantly aware of the weak link in the opposition's bowling unit. They quickly target him. On Saturday night, Kohli wanted to go after part-timer Marlon Samuels. He probably was looking for a few easy runs but lost the plot in his anxiety to hammer a length ball.
India’s problems though came to the fore a lot earlier. The captain was keen on five bowlers in the ranks and got them in the form of three fast bowlers and two spinners — all specialists. However this ensured that the team played a batsman short.
This shortfall was compounded by comeback man Ambati Rayudu trying to bat with the expected efficiency of a number four batsman and Mahendra Singh Dhoni struggling to turn back the years and bat with the conviction that had made him such a feared finisher in limited-overs cricket.
If the trials and tribulations of these two older batsmen were not enough, young Rishabh Pant’s lack of experience was also a drawback. To make it worse, openers Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan flopped. Shockingly none of the batsmen, barring Kohli of course, could even reach the 50-run mark.
Their failures and the absence of another frontline batsman bat severely dented India’s reply to West Indies’ substantial total of 283.
That the team depended excessively once again on the brilliance on Kohli was a foregone conclusion even before India began the chase. The Indian captain did not disappoint. He registered his third successive century — his 38th ODI hundred — to show that he was in the form of his life.
The shocker though was the inability of the others to rally around him and chip in with a score that could have pushed back the visitors.
It was obvious that Dhoni the wicket-keeper continues to be head and shoulders above anyone in the country. The stunning catch he took to get rid of Chandrapaul Hemraj and the brilliant stumping off Kuldeep Yadav's bowling were matchless. But his batting continues to be a worry, and the former captain needs to get that sorted out quickly.
Pant was lucky to be dropped first ball. He should have made that count for something. India cannot afford to have Rayudu, Pant and Dhoni misfiring at number four, five and six and at the same time play a batsman short. This puts far too much strain on the top three batsmen, Sharma, Dhawan and Kohli.
Kohli, in particular, has delivered time and again. So much so, rivals focus excessively on getting rid of him as soon as possible. Of course Kohli is a very smart cookie. He takes his time playing himself in before cutting loose. Maybe the other top batsmen should also concentrate on getting their eye in and making it count while the focus is all on Kohli.
The grim lesson learnt from the Pune loss is that India need to field six top-class, consistent batsmen, including Kohli, in the playing eleven at all times. Otherwise the bold and necessary step of going in with five specialist bowlers will be counter productive.
Balance in the playing eleven is certainly the key. But till the time the team gets to that point, it is time for the main batsmen, both the experienced and young ones, to pull up their socks and deliver with more consistency and conviction. They could start with the next two ODIs for now.