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India slip in the rain, lose No 1 ranking

cricket Updated: Jan 24, 2014 11:39 IST
N Ananthanarayanan
N Ananthanarayanan
Hindustan Times
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Before leaving for the New Zealand tour, skipper MS Dhoni had dismissed concerns that his batsmen may not deliver against pace and bounce. The lessons learnt in South Africa would stand the team in good stead, he had declared.

Now with the top ODI ranking conceded to Australia, that assurance flies in the face of the second straight defeat, after coming up short in the same areas where the owners of the two premier one-day titles failed in the first match at Napier.

READ: Match report

While the 24-run defeat in Napier came on a hard pitch where the Kiwi pacemen rattled the top-order with pace and bounce, the defeat on a slower pitch in Hamilton exposes serious shortcoming that need to be urgently addressed.

To start with, both openers Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan appear to be short on confidence and the manner in which they have played and been dismissed suggests they don’t seem to be backing their skills to come good. The New Zealand pacers have kept the length three-fourths or shorter, and the smart field placement and accurate bowling has left them guessing and looking for desperate shots to get out of trouble.

It is a serious issue in a side where the only specialist batsman in the reserves is Ambati Rayudu. And Cheteshwar Pujara, who has the skill to negotiate quality bowling overseas, remains confined to Tests.

Neither Shikhar, who looked solid on the slower pitches during the ICC Champions Trophy triumph, nor Rohit Sharma, who left for South Africa after hammering two Test centuries in a row on debut, have succeeded overseas since. In eight innings, they have failed to get a 50.

Even on a slower pitch in Hamilton, there was no assurance. Skipper Dhoni suggests that players back their natural game and when it fails, they are too worried about their reputations and that seriously erode their confidence. On a tour where the two openers are vital members of the side, it is not a good situation to be in.

Virat Kohli has been the master amid all this, showing both determination and great skill to handle everything thrown at him by the Kiwis. Had he got better support from others in the top five, the result could have been entirely different.

On Wednesday, Dhoni promoted himself ahead of Suresh Raina, pushing the left-hander to No 6. Raina started his career as a great finisher, but they were mostly on home pitches. He has shown little signs of getting over his problems against the balls aimed at his rib-cage.

Interestingly, while the likes of Mitchell McClenaghan have been aggressive, the hosts have played very smart cricket. In South Africa, Dale Steyn and Co had brushed aside an under-cooked India team, which did fight back impressively in the Tests. If India did not come away with a draw in the Tests, the bowing unit must take the blame for not finishing it off on the final day of the Johannesburg Test.

In New Zealand, two bowlers have looked ordinary — Ravichandran Ashwin and Ishant Sharma. The off-spinner, who has been enormously successful on helpful pitches at home, has gone wicketless in the first two ODIs here.

In South Africa, he had one wicket to show in the three ODI innings he bowled. Although, Dhoni continues to defend Ashwin, saying he is quite happy with the restrictive role he plays abroad, the off-spinner’s lack of inventiveness away from friendly conditions is allowing the opposition to get to big totals.

Ishant’s poor line and lack of zip has been compounded by his poor control, and he has waxed and waned in his career. That leaves almost half the side facing serious questions.

India will have to drop him and field the fit-again Varun Aaron, who bowls at a decent pace despite having suffered a serious back injury. And leg-spinner Amit Mishra might go for runs but he has been someone who needs the backing of the team management. If that happens, he is definitely a far better wicket-taking option. Currently, Ashwin barely creates chances, leave alone pick wickets, and that has led to certain desperation in his bowling.

South Africa and then New Zealand have exposed the serious weaknesses in the India team. And they have to return to Australia and New Zealand to defend their World Cup. Dhoni admits his team his "batting heavy" and the time has come for him to deal with those not showing the commitment needed.