India shouldn’t mind the defeat against South Africa, as it gives them an opportunity to introspect
Maybe, the final ODI against South Africa wouldn’t have been that lopsided if Sudhir Naik had acceded to the Indian team management’s request and produced a turner. The Wankhede curator used the heavy roller instead and thereby killed the contest. Frankly speaking, once a belter had been rolled out, India were on the backfoot. Especially without Ravi Ashwin, who was recovering from a side strain, they barely had a chance. Losing the toss compounded the woes.
Make no mistake, Naik, a former Test cricketer, was well within his rights to prepare a pitch of his choice, Ravi Shastri’s displeasure notwithstanding. And good that the game was played fair and square, for the visitors were excellent throughout the limited-overs leg of the tour and deserved a level-playing field for the series decider. Their first-ever ODI series win in this country was well-earned.
India shouldn’t mind the loss either, as it gives them an opportunity to introspect. Winning in Mumbai on a tailor-made pitch would have been a short-term gain. But after a string of failures, planning long-term has become the need of the hour. This defeat could be a blessing in disguise.
Over the past 10-odd months, India have achieved very little in the shorter formats. They were knocked out in the group stages in the tri-series in Australia earlier this year. Winning eight matches on the bounce in the World Cup was a fantastic response, but their campaign ended in the semi-final. Losing the ODI series in Bangladesh was the lowest point, while the T20 international and ODI defeats to South Africa confirmed the team’s slump even in home conditions.
The bowlers have been targeted for the debacle and there’s a lot of merit in the criticisms. You expect Bhuvneshwar Kumar & Co to cop the flak after conceding 438 runs in 50 overs. Only 16 wickets in seven limited-overs matches (T20s and ODIs combined) attest the ineffectiveness of the Indian medium pacers. The South African quicks, on the other hand, accounted for 38 scalps in conditions that hardly suited their style of bowling. India missed Mohammed Shami, but at the end of the day, the onus was on the batters to outscore the opposition at home. The problem is that batting, of late, hasn’t been clicking as a unit.
In the 50-overs format, India have posted 300-plus totals only twice (both against Bangladesh) since March. Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli scored centuries against the Saffers. MS Dhoni and Ajinkya Rahane got into the 90s and 80s, respectively. But collectively, Indian batting failed to fire. They couldn’t reach 300 even once in five matches.
An unsettled batting order is a reason for inconsistency. Kohli batted at No 4 in the T20s and also the first two ODIs before moving to No 3 from the third match onwards. Rahane had been treated shabbily. The team’s most improved batsman over the past couple of seasons had to fight his way back into the playing XI because his captain felt he couldn’t rotate the strike freely in the middle overs. Dhoni favoured Ambati Rayudu instead, but the latter was found to be too inept to handle Kagiso Rabada’s pace. Rahane had to be brought back to the fold, but experiments continued. He batted at No 3 in the first two ODIs before being relegated to No 6 in the third. Hopefully, his 58-ball 87 in Mumbai will help him cement his place at No 4.
The skipper himself has become a problem because he can no longer force the pace at the death. Widely considered to be one of the greatest finishers ever, Dhoni’s failure to live up to the billing against South Africa affected India’s chances. The match-winning 92-not-out in Indore was a fabulous effort, but there he had the chance to build his innings after an early collapse. The 34-year-old is still irreplaceable as far as his batting is concerned, but now that he has become more of a grafter, his skills would be better utilised up the order.
India must search for a new finisher and Suresh Raina’s weakness against the short ball doesn’t make him the right candidate for the job. Slog-over batting (No 6 and 7) has become very important after rule changes. Fielding teams can now deploy an extra man outside the circle from 41-50 overs and it has made life difficult for the batters in terms of big-hitting. As for Raina, he has had serious limitations against quality pace.
Inexplicably, India didn’t use Gurkeerat Singh at all. Who knows, he might have fit into that No 7 role of a batting all-rounder, but Dhoni refused to move out of the set pattern. He seldom does. One of the secrets of Sourav Ganguly’s success as a captain was that he dared to throw his fledglings in at the deep end. From Virender Sehwag to Yuvraj Singh, via Zaheer Khan and Mohammad Kaif, everyone flourished under Ganguly’s leadership because he backed youth. Taking a leaf out of Ganguly’s book will do Dhoni no harm. The team is struggling to strike the right balance and youngsters like Gurkeerat can be of help if they’re given proper assurance. Some boldness is required.
The selectors must also take a call on Dhoni’s future as captain. They’ve a ready-made replacement in Kohli, but will it be wise to bring in a change with only four months left for the World T20? Kohli is already in charge of the Test team, but this is a different format and he needs time to bed in. England had removed Alastair Cook as their ODI captain just three months before the last World Cup and the decision backfired. Eoin Morgan, Cook’s replacement, didn’t get enough time to prepare for the big event. India would be hosting the World T20 and the selection committee now has a decision to make. Calls for Dhoni’s sacking will grow louder if India do well in the Test series.
But maintaining the status quo perhaps would be a safer option. The World T20 marks the end of a cycle and rebuilding under Kohli should begin in earnest after that. It will allow the new captain enough time to implement his methods with an eye on the 2019 World Cup.