As the new Indian captain, Virat Kohli has been given a tough job. Three matches are all he has to firm up plans for the Champions Trophy. It puts some focus on the BCCI’s fixtures committee who lacked the foresight of scheduling more ODIs ahead of an important ICC tournament. Then again, they have been very busy elsewhere.
The calendar is packed until the Champions Trophy, and nothing can be done about it now. It brings MS Dhoni’s decision under the spotlight a bit. We already understand that it was the right thing to do. But only now, after the ODI series against England is under way, its full implication is understood.
Dhoni always believed in ‘process’, and by his own admission, he had mentally given up the captaincy after the 2015 ODIs against South Africa at home. During the Australia and New Zealand series thereafter, it had become amply clear that Dhoni himself wanted to try out different batsmen to bat after him, so he could be pushed up the order. There was experimentation, in the form of Gurkeerat Mann, Rishi Dhawan and Manish Pandey in Australia a year ago.
While the first two failed to get going, Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya were drafted into the ODI squad thereafter. Jadhav did well in Zimbabwe, and then followed it up in New Zealand. But he wasn’t the quintessential No 4 batsman the management was looking for. Instead, they put faith in Pandey to do that job, and assigned the finishers’ role to the Jadhav-Pandya combination.
The central figure herein is Dhoni, again, but not in terms of leadership anymore. It is more to do with his batting ability. In the New Zealand series, Mohali was the definitive match in terms of his optimal batting position. The 286-run target was nowhere similar to the 351 needed on Sunday in Pune, but the Black Caps had reduced India to 41/2 in the ninth over.
Dhoni came out to bat No 4 that day, not wondering about the number of overs remaining, or what if he got out early. Was it a punt? It is tough to say, but knowing how he led for a decade, it was a calculated gamble when faced with a sub-300 chase. That Kohli-Dhoni nearly finished it off is beside the point, for they trusted the inexperienced lower-middle order to do so in case they failed.
This ploy – Dhoni coming in at No 4 and entrusting the finishing role to the juniors – failed in the next game in Ranchi. They had promoted Axar Patel, ahead of Pandey-Jadhav, and it didn’t work out as planned. This probably left a mark on thinking process of the management, and indeed the selectors. Pandey had a torrid time in that particular series, scoring 76 runs in five innings, inclusive of 28*, 12 and 0 the three times he batted after Dhoni.
With just three ODIs to play after that series then, you can almost understand the need to bring in someone with experience to shore up the middle order in partnership with Dhoni. It is debate worthy why the selectors didn’t go for Suresh Raina, who has had more recent experience of playing ODI cricket than Yuvraj, who last played this format in 2013. Pandey obviously is the big loser in this decision.
The underlying point though isn’t about him, for this seems a short-term solution at the moment. It is in the batsmen who come afterwards that the success or failure of this ploy is dependent upon. Instead, it is about whether Jadhav and Pandya can hold sway at Nos 6 and 7, in these three ODIs, through Champions Trophy and the next couple years to come as Kohli and the think tank builds towards the 2019 ODI World Cup.
Pune, in that light, was a keen marker of what this process of transforming the middle order has achieved. It wasn’t just about Kohli assuming captaincy in all three formats, or continuing his dominant form from 2016, not even about the stunning chase alone either. The crux of this victory was in two details – Pandya’s growing maturity and Jadhav’s adventurism of course.
Much has already been said about Jadhav’s innings, whether be it praise from Kohli or from all other quarters. His counter-attack knocked the winds out of the English attack, and his captain’s prophecy of panic among the opposition rang true. In celebrating their partnership though, one aspect has gone missing.
It was after Kohli got out that Jadhav put on 28 crucial runs with Pandya. They scored at eight per over, not letting the momentum slip away importantly enough. Then Jadhav got out, and India still needed another 60 runs. Before leaving the field, the homeboy crossed over and spoke with Pandya, perhaps telling him what needed to be done.
Even as Jadeja threw away his wicket at the other end, Pandya showed an increasingly assured calmness in his approach. There was no panic, even as he played and missed off a couple short deliveries, instead balancing aggression with caution as he helped his side across the finish line with 11 deliveries to spare.
This dual contribution flicked the pages of India’s narrative back to Delhi in October. These two batsmen fluffed a simple closing to a 243-run chase, as New Zealand won by six runs. "They will learn by this experience. I do not need to tell them to maintain calm in a tight finish,” Dhoni, then captain, had said afterwards.
Three months later, with the stakes considerably higher, Jadhav-Pandya made good on that investment, perhaps prompting the team management to cross off one item on its Champions Trophy preparation list.
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Updated Date: Jan 17, 2017 12:12:19 IST