The way skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni used his bowling options in the last two Twenty20 ties against Sri Lanka in Ranchi and Visakhapatnam reflects his thinking.
With India’s next two tournaments – the T20 Asia Cup in Bangladesh and then the World T20 at home – to be played in the subcontinent, Dhoni seems to be focusing on attacking the opposition in the first six overs to try and put them under pressure by picking early wickets.
In the first T20 in Pune, on a grassy wicket, Dhoni opened the attack with the seamers while defending a paltry total. But on batting wickets in the next two games, Dhoni’s ploy paid off. With an experienced Ashish Nehra available, he asked Ravichandran Ashwin to share the new ball, despite the danger of his premier off-spinner becoming an easy target bowling with fielding restrictions. But Ashwin responded in clinical fashion and took seven wickets in the series with the new ball, helping India rally to a series victory.
In Australia, where the wickets were heavily tilted towards batsmen, Nehra and Ashwin shared the new ball and three wickets in the first T20 in Adelaide. Although Nehra opened the bowling in all three games, Ashwin was used as first and second change. But this attacking plan could set the agenda in the next two tournaments.
For a long time, India has been searching for a combination which allows Ashwin to attack. After the 2015 World Cup, seamers Mohammed Shami and Mohit Sharma have been sidelined due to injuries, while Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been benched due to poor form. Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav too have struggled for consistency.
Has Nehra’s comeback after four years then given Dhoni the confidence to attack? Certainly. Let’s consider the two T20Is against South Africa at Dharamsala and Cuttack late last year. Bhuvneshwar, Srinath Aravind and Mohit failed to make an impression in the opening game as India failed to defend 199.
At Cuttack, Dhoni introduced Ashwin up front and he responded with a three-for. South Africa had 67 on board in the power play overs at Dharamsala but were 38/2 at Cuttack (the visitors won by six wickets). Thanks to Bhuvneshwar, who bowled two overs for 13 runs, Ashwin could take the lead role. Sri Lanka were 28/2 at Pune, 37/3 at Ranchi and 29/5 at Vizag at the end of the first six (power play) overs.
This shows that when the bowler at the other end keeps it tight and is taking wickets, Ashwin’s approach changes, and he becomes lethal.
Against Sri Lanka, Nehra adjusted according to the pitch, the Delhi bowler using tricks to get wickets without losing control.
At Pune, Nehra varied his line well and picked two wickets with short deliveries. He altered his line and length at Vizag and Ranchi where the pitches played slower than Pune and were more batting-friendly.
Ashwin benefitted from Nehra’s approach. With Bhuvneshwar, who wasn’t able to check the runs, Ashwin had to play the containing role. With Nehra, Ashwin had the licence to go for wickets. A difficult bowler to play while bowling with the new ball, Ashwin spun it from around the stumps and occasionally bowled a floater to keep the Lanka batsmen guessing.
Once the power play overs were sorted, Ravindra Jadeja and Jasprit Bumrah showed they can shoulder the responsibility with their tight spells.
In Bangladesh and India, wickets are going to be slower as well as batting friendly, which means the bowlers will have to be smarter. Although Nehra can be expensive, his experience and the angle the left-hander creates while bowling to right-handed batsmen means a wicket can be around the corner.
And with Ashwin in the wicket-taking zone, he will hope his 36-year-old new ball partner holds good in these two tournaments.