A year — and a decade - of highs for Indian cricket ended on a happy note, as Virat Kohli's men were able to seal a 2-1 ODI series win over West Indies with victory in the deciding game at Cuttack on Sunday, 22 December.
For a side that has been, arguably, the most consistent force in the ODI game this decade — two titles, one runners-up finish and two semi-final appearances in the five ICC 50-over events — India entered their final international match of the 2010s knowing defeat would result in two ODI series losses at home in the same calendar year for only the second time, and the first since 1987.
That ignominy, however, was averted as half-centuries from Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli, along with a composed finish through Ravindra Jadeja, saw India over the line in a tense 316-run chase at the Barabati Stadium.
The two pillars of the Indian setup — Kohli and Sharma — were named Man-of-the-Match and Man-of-the-Series respectively; but while the captain and vice-captain remain constant forces in any Indian successes, the talking points from this three-match rubber against the West Indians came in the form of the duo's teammates, most of whom find themselves auditioning for permanent roles in India's limited overs setups for the near future.
The takeaways from India's 2-1 ODI series win against West Indies:
Rahul breathing heavy down Dhawan's neck
KL Rahul finished the six-match home rubber versus the men from the Caribbean — three T20I and three ODIs — as the most consistent performer of the contest; ironically, he may not have even found a spot in the XI in either format had it not been for an eleventh-hour injury.
Shikhar Dhawan holds the faith of the Indian team management as Rohit's trusted partner for both white-ball formats. In T20Is, that position has been much debated, and Rahul's magnificent returns — 62 off 40 and 91 off 56 in India's two wins in the T20I series — should, in all likelihood, be pushing the 27-year-old ahead in the pecking order.
In ODIs, thus far, Dhawan's spot alongside Sharma has been quite unchallenged — and why not, considering the pair's superb run since uniting at the top of the order ahead of the 2013 Champions Trophy. But that ODI security might, just might, be up for questioning too.
Rahul ends 2019 with 572 runs at an average of 47.66 from 13 ODIs this year, a quantum leap on his returns in the 50-over game through the two preceding years, where he aggregated a mere 121 runs from nine innings.
In 10 out of these 13 ODIs — seven at the World Cup, and three in this series — he donned the role of makeshift opener in the absence of Dhawan. These 10 outings brought 509 of his 572 runs, at an average of 50.90. More impressively, five out of 10 innings where Rahul opened saw him surpass 50 (with two of them converting into hundreds).
Equally impressive, if not more, was his association with Sharma. The duo's partnership numbers for 2019 read 1008 runs from 11 innings at an average of 91.63, with five century stands out of 11 — since the start of 2013, only one Indian pairing has managed more runs in a calendar year (Sharma-Dhawan, 1271 from 24 innings in 2013).
Coming as it does in a year that was well below-par for Dhawan (an average of 36.83 from 17 ODIs, compared to a career mark of 44.50), the senior-most of India's limited overs opening contenders is bound to be feeling the heat.
Iyer-Pant show signs of erasing the middle muddle
India's number four, and India's middle-order. The ODI excesses of the Indian top-order have papered over these dampening cracks for the best part of the last five years, but the flaws were left exposed in the most crucial game of the year, after one damaging half-hour at Manchester accounted for the top-order and ended India's World Cup dream.
Several gazillion trial runs and one painstaking heartbreak later, India appear to be settling with Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant as their numbers four and five for the ODI game — and while West Indies might not have presented the stiffest challenge, the evidence from this series was heartening at the very least.
The pair, who have shared many an eye-catching IPL partnership in recent years, got the opportunity to bat together in ODIs for the first time, and two outings in the middle produced two stands worth remembering.
The first, a 114-run association at Chennai, couldn't eventually prevent defeat, but that India could still post 287 on the board without any real contribution from the top three would have brought immense relief to the camp.
Then, in their second stint together, at Vizag, Iyer and Pant were presented with another scenario where India's middle-order has often flattered to deceive off late — think about it, how many times have India been left to rue a relative death overs slide after being provided a solid platform? But on this occasion, a more-than-good platform was elevated to a match-winning mountain thanks to a 24-ball cameo — yielding 73 runs.
That gives Iyer and Pant a partnership tally of 187 runs from two innings. It's obviously nothing to start singing to the galleries with, but sample this: since the end of the 2015 World Cup, India have used a total of 84 partnership combinations from wickets four to six in ODIs, and only 11 of those 84 have managed more than 187 partnership runs. Remove any mentions of MS Dhoni and Kohli from that list, and you are left with only two such combinations.
Both of those combinations have one common factor: Kedar Jadhav. Speaking of Jadhav…
What, exactly, is the Jadhav situation?
Jadhav turns 35 in March. Kedar Jadhav will be 38 by the time the next ODI World Cup concludes. Seeing as his last T20I appearance came in October 2017, it is highly unlikely that Kedar Jadhav is part of India's T20 World Cup plans.
So, without meaning any disrespect to his contributions to the Indian ODI setup, what, exactly, is the point of persisting with Jadhav at number six? Make no mistake, his numbers in the present don't leave much room for complaining. An average above 40, a strike rate above 100, more than a handful of impact contributions with the bat.
But the strongest case for Jadhav, earning him his ticket to the World Cup as well as the subsequent berths thereafter, is that he brings that now-rare quality of an Indian batting option who can bowl too - crucial to the balance of a unit that often doesn't have a full-fledged fifth bowler, leave alone a sixth.
Now chew on this: Since the start of the World Cup, Jadhav has played 12 ODIs — and bowled 16 overs. He's only been called upon to bowl in six of these games, and not once has he delivered more than five overs. In fact, in half of those six games, he's only been given a single over. Oh, and, one more thing — these 16 overs have been wicketless.
In this most recent sample of three games, he bowled all of six balls. One over, in three games.
So, the idea that Jadhav is in the side to aid the bowling numbers stands seemingly refuted.
Which leads me to the next step, a question for the Indian think-tank. Who is likelier to be in a position to contribute to India's 2023 World Cup bid? Jadhav or Manish Pandey? Or Shivam Dube, if you're looking for someone who 'can bowl'? Or Vijay Shankar?
Jadeja living up to Kohli's all-round billing
Or even Ravindra Jadeja? Alright, extrapolating Jadeja's happy returns with the bat into a potential number six role might seem a bit much to some. But let's just take it for what it is, at the moment.
Jadeja's return into the Indian limited overs fold — be it to the ODI team just in time for the World Cup, or the T20I squad more recently — has been a product of Kohli (and the team management) giving an equivocal vote of confidence to his batting abilities, and thereby his value as a multi-dimensional performer in white-ball cricket, or more-than-bits-and-pieces if I may dare.
The all-rounder, on his part, is only reaffirming his skipper's trust. And it isn't just to do with the vital 31-ball 39 not out he compiled to take India over the finish line at Cuttack; it's more the manner, the measure, with which he marshalled what was a knife-edge moment in the series-decider.
It wasn't the first time Jadeja the batsman has shone through at a crunch moment this year either. In Manchester on that July day, his 59-ball 77 might not have been enough, but Jadeja came mighty close to what could've ranked among the mightiest of ODI innings.
Ironically, in this year of batting gains, Jadeja the limited overs bowler hasn't enjoyed a great time — he closes out 2019 with only 12 wickets from 15 ODIs.
But in more pleasing news, the maturity of his batting isn't just a white-ball thing; if anything, this was the year Jadeja came of age as a Test batsman — five fifties in 10 innings for a total of 440 runs at an average of 62.85. That has meant he now walks in at number six whenever India opt to field five bowlers. Jadeja at six, with Hardik Pandya at seven, and then four 'proper' bowlers — could that be a route worth envisaging for the Indian ODI camp on the path towards 2023?
ODI bowling: Which way does the puzzle go?
All-rounder(s) conundrum aside, the injury-induced absence of Pandya, and Jasprit Bumrah in particular, have meant India have gone in to their recent white-ball assignment with makeshift attacks. It's also meant that every game is an audition for several hopefuls in their attempts to make themselves permanent fixtures in the setup. How did they fare?
Mohammed Shami, undoubtedly, is the closest-to-permanent of all the bowlers India fielded against West Indies. Most would argue he is a sure-shot starter in ODIs, and his numbers would justify that billing: 42 wickets in 21 games in 2019, four ahead of any other bowler in the world. Where he is still among the contenders is in the T20I scheme of things, and his strike abilities might win that nod as well.
Deepak Chahar, by virtue of a tremendous start to his T20I career, appears closest to a full run in the ODI squad, especially given the spate of injuries befalling Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Chahar was the only bowler to emerge with his head held high during the pasting India received in the series opener at Chennai, before seeing his run cut prematurely by injury after the second game.
Navdeep Saini and Shardul Thakur both marked a return from their own injury issues over the course of this series, Saini only as a replacement for Chahar. Earning his maiden ODI cap at Cuttack, Saini responded neatly after seeing Evin Lewis spank him for two fours off his first three balls, and his pace should enable him to continue to knock on the doors even when India are at full strength; Thakur, meanwhile, made his case more with the bat than with the ball — to see a number eight stride out and succeed in a cameo is a sight Indian fans haven't seen a lot of in recent years.
In the spin department, Kuldeep Yadav's hat-trick at Vizag alleviated the pains of his toughest year on the international circuit, but two wicketless outings at Chennai and Cuttack perhaps negated the gains. Yuzvendra Chahal couldn't get a game in the ODI leg, but given the lack of wickets among the spinners, don't rule out a 'Kul-Cha' reunion sooner than later.
WI: Batting brimming with hope, bowling not so much
For West Indies, there were undoubted gains on a morale front, for they came as close to winning an ODI series against India as they ever have in 10 attempts since their last such victory in 2006. For them to do so in what was the first serious test under their latest leadership structure with Kieron Pollard in-charge was all-the-more credit-worthy.
Even without Chris Gayle, whose future in the game is anyway time-bound, the West Indians rediscovered joy in the batting. Shai Hope's reputation when it comes to piling on the runs only improved, Shimron Hetmyer bolstered his credentials at Chennai with one of the most dazzling hundreds by a visiting batsman in this part of the world, and Nicholas Pooran has to be considered the prime candidate to fly the flag of Caribbean flair in the years to come — on full display through his blistering 64-ball 89 in the decider. Pollard, too, showed just what he still has in the tank with his own blitz at Cuttack.
But there will be concerns over the bowling department — in particular the apparent lack of wicket-takers in the unit. Sheldon Cottrell did the damage at Chennai, but ended the series as the most expensive frontline bowler in either camp, with an economy of 7, to take some sheen off the million-dollar-plus pay-packet that arrived for him at the IPL auction. Jason Holder's dipping stock should raise most eyebrows, and Alzarri Joseph will need to shed his waywardness to establish himself as a starter. The greatest disappointment, though, were the spinners — Khary Pierre, Roston Chase and Hayden Walsh bowled a combined total of 37 overs without managing a wicket, and each of them conceded more than six per over.
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India chased down a mammoth target of 328, with Pant playing a key role with his 138-ball unbeaten knock to hand his side a 2-1 series win and Australia their first defeat in 32 years at the Gabba.
Pant is often compared with the two-time World Cup-winning former captain and wicketkeeper-batsman, who retired last year after a glorious international career.
The 23-year-old's hard work paid dividends as he finished the four-match Test series as the third highest scorer with 274 runs from three matches.