“What duly matters is how the team is shaping up on the current day and even though the target does remain 2019, on should not be drawn to such ominous far-fetched readings, where the performances of today is overlooked for the “what ifs” of tomorrow”.
Relapsing into complacency and over-confidence is quite easy and often the comfortable thing to do after your team has just defeated the mighty South Africans in their own den. The wins, which were not just flash-in-the-pan victories was a result of a proper structure and a solid foundation that had been set in place ever since the last few years of MS Dhoni’s captaincy. He had done the team a huge favour by asking Rohit Sharma to open the innings and along with Shikhar Dhawan, the duo combined to emerge as one of the best opening pairs in the world currently. Cricket is always a process and Virat Kohli picked up right from where Dhoni had left, not only further strengthening the team but making them a dominating force in world cricket.
The first hurdle was the ODI series in South Africa, after many, many matches at home. The “real test” was always going to be how the team performs well abroad and with a 5-1 thrashing of the Proteas, one can in no way state that the journey to 2019 has not begun in the right earnest.
But champion teams look forward to ways of bettering themselves further and further. They accept the positives and celebrate them, but before long, they zero it down on the areas that need improvement. Kohli’s acceptance of his team’s flaws and their continued efforts to rectify them gave glimpses of a skipper whose passion for prolonged success overweighed their quest for a win here and a win there.
He need not have looked further than the wobbly middle-order. Throughout the series, with the impact of the top three being so immense, one could not be blamed for overlooking how dismal India’s batsmen from four to seven have been. Ajinkya Rahane was pushed to bat at four, maybe after the skipper sensed his absence in the Test matches, but he does remain a slow-striker of the ball in sub-continental conditions.
In this tour, he started off with a brisk 79 and ended with an unbeaten 34, but in between, he did give in to lapses of distraction. Even if he is picked by Kohli to be the ideal number four in England, how fair will it be to keep rotating players according to the conditions, assuming one does not play him in Asia due to the aforementioned reasons? KL Rahul, who, till not far back, was termed as the ideal number four against Sri Lanka, is now seen as more of a backup opener by the captain, which leaves Manish Pandey, Shreyas Iyer, MS Dhoni, Dinesh Karthik and even Hardik Pandya vying for that role.
Pandey and Karthik, who had their moments in the series against Australia and New Zealand, respectively, fell into bouts of inconsistency. Iyer is more comfortable against the new, hardball than he is against the softer ones, and well, the mere thought of pushing Pandya to bat at four upfront on seaming conditions when the top order has failed is horrific, to say the least.
That puts Dhoni the prime contender to play at four. He has often expressed his desire to bat higher the order and pundits as well believe that the maverick, who takes time to settle in, will be the best bet at four. But with him at four, India’s five and six look rusty and inexperienced. So, he has been pushed down to six and even seven, as younger players have been given the chances ahead of him.
In the 6 games, India’s lower middle (from five to seven) has just scored 144 runs between them. The constant shuffling has led to the player’s being unaware of their roles, which makes matters worse. On most occasions, India’s top three had given India a solid start but almost on all instances, the lower order could hardly build up to their efforts and lost wickets in a flurry, making one believe that they were playing in conditions totally different from what the top three had batted on.
The issue with Dhoni batting at five or even six is that by the time he settles in, the Indian innings will be nearing its end. He made 10 in 22 deliveries in the 3rd ODI but then in the fourth, struck a 43-ball 42 after having a strike-rate of less than 50 in the first twenty balls that he faced. Hence, it is imperative that for Dhoni to shine, he should be pushed higher up, but then again, the vicious cycle in which inexperienced player will play down below crops up instantly.
To go with this, four run-outs throughout the series is just not acceptable. Just when a partnership has been building, a terrible mix-up sends one player back to the hut. With crucial limited overs series against England and New Zealand coming up, this trend will need to be reversed. It is not easy to stick up and grind for the runs in these seaming conditions, and whatever one might say about the conditions becoming more “Indian-like”, the truth is, they are still hostile to shot-making from ball one. One needs to set one’s eyes in and then go for the flourish, which all get undone if a wicket is lost in the most stupid manner – a run-out.
Pandya’s batting and the lack of a backup pace attack have often been spoken about, with many even questioning how long Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal will keep trapping players in their web. While that might hold true, one should not forget that cricket does remain a game of glorious uncertainties. It is not that Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah did not do their job well. Also, it would be rather cynical to question Kuldeep and Chahal’s performances in the next one year or so.
On that logic, one cannot even be sure that Rohit Sharma will still score the runs a year later or that Kohli will not have a few ordinary games. (Ermm, scrap that out. It is blasphemous to even think of him not amongst the runs!) What duly matters is how the team is shaping up on the current day and even though the target does remain 2019, on should not be drawn to such ominous far-fetched readings, where the performances of today is overlooked for the “what ifs” of tomorrow.