India vs Australia ODI series review: Hardik Pandya's importance, spinners' average show, Australia's ODI form and more
The ODI series against Australia leaves India with more questions than answers as far as their 50-over setup is concerned.
The last time India lost six successive ODIs, the year was 2006. The last time India were cleanswept in two successive ODI series, the year was 1976; it was, in fact, the first two bilateral series that India played.
It could have been a very ‘2020’ nadir to hit.
But a much-improved display at Canberra – inspired by changes rung in only after conceding the series following two insipid bowling displays at Sydney – prevented the same, as India were able to finish with a more respectable 2-1 scoreline, in the process notching up their first points in the new ICC Super League cycle.
Debutant T Natarajan and the returning Shardul Thakur made a significant difference to India’s bowling fortunes, but it was the batting brilliance of Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja – who stitched a record unbeaten 150-run stand after India had been reduced to 152/5 in 32 overs – that made the telling impact on the game.
Still, the gulf between the two units from the first two games – where Australia were comprehensively better, while also getting to field their first-choice XI – leaves India with more questions than answers as far as their 50-over setup is concerned.
In Hardik we trust, and we must
Hardik Pandya need not have been required to justify his presence purely as a batsman in the ODI setup, even before a ball was bowled this Australian summer. Still, there were some who questioned the same.
In bettering his personal best in ODIs twice in the space of three games – keeping India alive in an improbable chase one time and taking India, improbably, to a winning total the second – he’s given an emphatic response to those doubters.
For context, sample this: Before this series, since the World Cup triumph of 2011, there had only been 10 instances of an Indian batsman slotted at number six or below making two 50+ scores in the same ODI series; seven of those belonged to MS Dhoni.
For a wider perspective of Pandya’s abilities, sample this: In all ODI history, there are only 11 batsmen to have scored over 1000 runs while averaging above 30 and holding a strike rate in excess of 100. Some of the names on that list are AB de Villiers, Virender Sehwag, Jos Buttler, Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow and Glenn Maxwell.
At this moment, with an average of 34.32 and a strike rate of 115.43, Hardik Pandya falls in that elite bracket.
That’s what he brings to the table, even without considering what he brings with the ball.
As for the latter bit, let’s jump straight into…
Hardik-Jadeja: Two lifeboats in a sea of (sinking) specialists
Whichever way you spin it, and whoever the missing personnel are, the incomplete look of the Indian ODI puzzle boils down to a simple-enough failing: India have batsmen who can’t bowl, and bowlers who can’t fit.
And in the entire Indian ODI ecosystem, as it stands, there are all of two real exceptions: Ravindra Jadeja and Hardik Pandya (when fit enough to bowl some overs).
Ergo, between them rest any and all hopes of India’s balancing act in the 50-over game.
With the ball, India have considered both, at different stages in the past four years, fit to take up an entire bowler’s quota. In isolation, that doesn’t seem the most prudent move: even a fit Pandya doesn’t wear the look of a failsafe 10-over option (not yet at least), and Jadeja, for all his frugality, brings the downside of not being a legitimate-enough wicket-taking threat.
But this line of thought raises concerns only when you look at the two as fixtures at number seven and eight – if they both move up a spot, and you’re looking at 10 overs between them, with four other ‘specialist’ bowlers to follow, that’s luxurious by present-day Indian ODI standards.
The immediate riposte to this suggestion, till not so long ago, would have been a dispelling of any notion that Jadeja is a good bet at number seven.
Let’s not get swayed by the recency bias of his heroics at the Manuka Oval. Instead, let’s look at a more sizeable sample of performances – starting immediately after the utopian Jadeja performance, over two rainy days at Old Trafford in July 2019. The valiant (even if in vain) effort in the World Cup semi-final versus New Zealand appears to be a marker of sorts in the life of Jadeja the ODI batsman.
Prior to that semi-final, Jadeja’s average stood below 30 and his strike rate below 85. From that game onwards, Jadeja has an ODI batting average above 60 and a strike rate above 105. Even factoring in for the stat-padders that are ‘not outs’, there is telling evidence for his case: Jadeja’s average ODI innings used to be 20 runs from 24 balls; in this period of 11 innings, it is 31 runs from 29 balls.
If it doesn’t seem significant enough, chew on this – Dhoni’s average knock from number seven (a sample of 34 innings) was 27 runs from 29 balls. Yes.
And what Pandya and Jadeja achieved in unison, at the Manuka Oval, deserves retelling even as a one-off. Their undefeated 150-run association is the highest-ever partnership tally for the sixth wicket or below in ODIs in Australia, and also the highest-ever for India if you exclude games against Zimbabwe.
A six-seven pairing contributing regular runs, more than viable for 10 overs between themselves, and two of the gun fielders going around in the game. This is India’s lifeboat – over to a fully-fit Pandya, then.
Lack of spin wickets hurting India
From the end of the 2017 Champions Trophy until the end of 2019, India enjoyed a win rate of nearly 75 percent in ODIs. In this period of 30 months, spinners contributed 237 out of 514 wickets taken by India’s bowlers, averaging less than 30, conceding five runs per over, and picking up a wicket every six overs.
In 2020, as India endured their worst year in ODIs (win-loss 3-6), the spinners – Jadeja, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, namely – returned only 20 wickets from 178 overs. An average and strike rate north of 50 was only compounded by an economy rate in excess of six per over.
India have been, by a distance, the worst bowling unit in ODIs this year, and the sudden absence of the control as well as the striking powers of their spinners had a huge part to play in that – worsened, of course, by the year-long absence of Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s fitness and Jasprit Bumrah’s fitness.
These three games Down Under were a microcosm of just how much the spin stocks have dwindled, for it provided the rare instance of Australia out-spinning India. Even as the Indian spinners struggled their way to three wickets in 59 overs – while leaking 6.81 per over – their Australian counterparts yielded 10 wickets from 56.4 overs, giving away only 5.66 per over. The two specialist spinners, Adam Zampa and Ashton Agar, accounted for nine of these wickets, at an economy of just 5.36.
India’s spin numbers are bound to improve when playing in more familiar subcontinental conditions, but they are unlikely to make a dent as an ODI outfit till their star spinners find their grip back across conditions.
A chance missed for Mayank, a warning for Iyer
While 2020 didn’t come with too many chances for most in the world, it provided Mayank Agarwal a rare opening to make a mark at the top of the order in ODIs. Either side of the pandemic-enforced break, Agarwal got a run-in as India’s opener, in the absence of both Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma in New Zealand and Sharma alone in Australia.
With a best score of 32 across these five games, India’s first-choice Test opener failed to grab the opening, losing his spot to Shubman Gill by the time the final ODI in Australia arrived; Gill scored 33, and looked the part while he was out in the middle.
Shreyas Iyer had got his chance to make a mark after the 2019 World Cup, and was making it count up until the global shutdown: 538 runs in 11 innings, seven of which saw him pass 50, at an average of 53.80 and a strike rate of 102.67.
One poor series in Australia – 59 runs from three games, with a best score of 38 – shouldn’t put his place under any immediate threat. But the bigger threat for him is having potentially been found out in one particular aspect of his game. The sight of Iyer hobbling to a Josh Hazlewood snorter is one that will be bookmarked in the video archives of analysts the world over; a trial by pace and bounce awaits India’s latest number four, wherever he goes from here.
Are Australia approaching the gold standard again?
Despite missing out on the chance of cleansweeping their rivals, Australia finish this series, and year, with doubtless joy and definite answers for their ODI setup.
It had looked in disarray not too long ago, as they lost five games in a row in India and South Africa at the start of the year – and that’s before going further back to the pits of 2018 (two wins in 13 matches). But since their return to cricket, Australia now boast of ODI series wins against England and India.
Let’s not forget that they were without three of their guns in the series finale; when Australia had their first-choice XI, in the opening two games, they looked streets ahead of India.
The primary top-order of Aaron Finch, David Warner and Steven Smith amassed 617 runs – only one of the eight innings between the trio didn’t end up in at least a half-century. India’s top-three, meanwhile, managed three fifties in nine innings.
Marnus Labuschagne, too, struck a fluent 70 in the one outing where he batted at his designated position of number four.
But arguably their greatest source of satisfaction, from a batting perspective, is the return to type for the phenom that is Glenn Maxwell. ‘Mad Max’ had endured a frustratingly quiet spell of four years, averaging less than 30 from 2016 to 2019, with only seven fifties in 50 innings.
This year, in six outings – against England and India, at that – he’s bagged three fifties and a sensational series-winning hundred, plundering 353 runs at a strike rate of 145.26. Against India, despite coming on the back of a six-less IPL campaign, Maxwell shellacked 11 sixes in just 86 balls; the jaw-dropping strike rate of 194.18 is his best for any series he’s ever played.
In complete contrast to India, who seem devoid of any real all-rounders, Australia also balance their books and boost their depth in both departments by way of multiple all-rounders in the middle-order: Maxwell accompanied by Marcus Stoinis, ideally, with the likes of Moises Henriques and new-kid-on-the-block Cameron Green as back-ups.
Possibly the only blip in the setup came by the way of Mitchell Starc, who went through his worst year in ODIs (average 54.25, economy 6.28, strike rate 51.7). But this is the man with the best strike rate for any bowler with more than 150 wickets in ODI history; much like Bumrah, you’d reckon this is a minor bump in the road.
In any case, when you’re armed with a pace battery that reads Starc-Cummins-Hazlewood, a dip in the form of one can easily be negated by the class of the others – as was evident in these three matches.
A lot has been written about Cummins, but Hazlewood – thanks to his hat-trick of Kohli scalps – will now get the kind of attention his bowling has deserved for a long time. While his career numbers read impressively enough anyway, one look at his performances against other teams in the top-six of the ICC ODI rankings gives a clear indication of his stocks: 78 wickets in 45 innings, at an average of 25.42 and an economy of 4.82. Since the start of 2015, only two bowlers with 50+ wickets have a better average than Hazlewood in ODIs versus the top-six, and no one with more than 150 overs has a better economy.
In addition to the pace battery, they now have a top-performing Adam Zampa, who finishes well clear as the leading ODI wicket-taker of 2020 (27 wickets in 13 matches; next-best is Alzarri Joseph with 18 scalps).
They’re starting to look dangerous again, are the men in yellow.
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