Not long ago, India were scouring for an all-rounder of international standard, to lend greater balance to their One-Day International (ODI) side. The batting resembled an inverse pyramid, with Ravindra Jadeja slotted at number seven, followed by Ravichandran Ashwin; a genuine Test match number seven, but not quite the same force in the shorter format, requiring greater power and innovation. Unlike India of the yore, this team could not afford to accommodate another batsman and play just four bowlers, with conditions stacked heavily against the latter. But with the current combination, India’s physiognomy was rendered top heavy.
String of poor results were a mere corollary, especially in Australia, where good starts by the team were squandered precipitously. India were beaten black and blue, suffering their worst defeat in Canberra, where they lost nine for 46. On other occasions, the innings lacked a final catapult. A home series defeat to South Africa and a series loss in Bangladesh were equally disappointing prequels, with middle and lower order collapses a recurring theme.
What was India's Achilles heel back then, suddenly seems like a glorified urban legend with the emergence of Hardik Pandya, whose inclusion has changed the countenance of India's lower order. At least once during the series against England, numbers seven, eight and nine combined to define the result of a match, after the exploits of Kedar Jadhav and Virat Kohli in Pune.
At Kolkata, not all of them clicked in unison, but Pandya did, and passed on the baton to Jadeja and Ashwin, after notching up his maiden ODI fifty with the target in sight. While India fell a whisker short, they should never have got that close from 173 for five, with all exalted names back in the hut.
A team that was struggling to close out matches in the final remnants has started consistently clawing back from seemingly forlorn situations. The Delhi ODI against New Zealand proved to be the curtain raiser for the profound transformation witnessed against England. Pandya had taken India within touching distance of a win in Delhi, adding 49 invaluable runs for the ninth-wicket with Umesh Yadav, before a moment of insanity engendered his downfall. Hitherto, it had been an innings of unprecedented maturity, from someone playing just his second ODI and derisively written off as a Twenty20 specialist. Unfortunately, he didn't have Jadeja and Ashwin to bat around him then.
Where Jadeja and Ashwin benefitted further, was by scoring timely runs in the Test series against England. In Mohali, the duo bailed India out of choppy waters, with contributions of 90 and 72, that helped India gain a significant first innings lead as opposed to the more likely; small deficit, thereby swinging the sails of the windmill in their direction. Ashwin has progressed rapidly over the last year and a half, and with batting opportunities higher up the order during the Indian Premier League, he is beginning to find his moorings in fifty over cricket as well.
India's lower order has begun bearing strong resemblance to that of South Africa during the 1990s. That was a side boasting an endless line of bowling all-rounders, who were notoriously brilliant at pulling off improbable heists with the bat. Accurate modern comparisons can be made with teams like England and Australia. England themselves owed much to Chris Woakes and Liam Plunkett in an ODI against Sri Lanka last season, where they tied the match with a last ball six.
Most importantly, India now have the right men in the right batting positions. Jadeja is temperamentally more suited with fewer over remaining, thus the cushion of Pandya and Ashwin on either side, allows him the luxury to play his natural game at number eight. Pandya has already defied conventional wisdom, labelling him one-dimensional, with three starkly different knocks under contrasting circumstances. And Ashwin, with a Test batting average of 35 is a daunting prospect down at number nine, even if only psychologically at this stage. While India have not found an all-rounder of the calibre of Ben Stokes, the triumvirate of Pandya, Jadeja and Ashwin are proving themselves collectively just as proficient.
Updated Date: Jan 23, 2017 15:59:39 IST