No sugarcoating India's World Cup buildup

Mar 23, 2023 09:17 PM IST

Inability to play quality spin, lack of an anchor and suspect middle order will keep India on edge.

By now we have been adequately warned about not getting carried away by the highs gained in bilateral series. But things just got real after India crashed to their first bilateral series defeat across formats at home in over four years–losing the ODI No 1 mantle to Australia in the process.

Chennai, Mar 22 (ANI): India's Kuldeep Yadav along with Captain Rohit Sharma and team mates celebrate the dismissal of Australia's Sean Abbott during the 3rd ODI, at MA Chidambaram Stadium, in Chennai on Wednesday. (ANI Photo) (ANI)
Chennai, Mar 22 (ANI): India's Kuldeep Yadav along with Captain Rohit Sharma and team mates celebrate the dismissal of Australia's Sean Abbott during the 3rd ODI, at MA Chidambaram Stadium, in Chennai on Wednesday. (ANI Photo) (ANI)

There have been some gains, yes. At the same time, however, hitherto inconceivable concerns have surfaced. That India are yet to win an ODI series in Bangladesh since 2015 will no doubt pinch. Australia went one step further, ruthlessly exposing India’s often downplayed frailty against spin in a matter of one match. That, compounded by mounting injury woes and player management concerns, will weigh heavy on India’s minds as they go into a 10-week hiatus from one-day cricket.

Since the T20 World Cup semi-final carnage at Adelaide, India has won eight ODIs and lost five. For an entire month, they were able to sweep their T20 World Cup woes under the carpet, blanking Sri Lanka and New Zealand at home. But Sri Lanka are currently ranked eighth. And Trent Boult and Tim Southee didn’t open the bowling for New Zealand. Moreover, those series wins were bookended by four losses that came in the subcontinent, two in Bangladesh and two at home against Australia. Shakib Al Hasan took seven wickets in those two losses in Bangladesh. Ashton Agar dismissed a set Virat Kohli and KL Rahul in Chennai. Connected the left-arm slow bowler dots?

There’s more. Genuine pace and lateral movement continue to pose questions. Ask Ebadot Hossain who too took seven wickets in those two defeats in Bangladesh. Cut to Australia, Mitchell Starc (another left-armer) fired in some vicious inswingers that fell Kohli, Rahul and Suryakumar Yadav (twice at that) in Mumbai and Visakhapatnam. But India will insist they are learning from mistakes, identifying and pruning the probable World Cup squad.

It’s completely possible India are seeking comfort in numbers, as they did during the buildup of the T20 World Cup. In the space of a few weeks, Ishan Kishan and Shubman Gill set and reset the records for the youngest double centurions in men’s ODI cricket. Kohli too is back in runs, as is Rohit Sharma. In fact, the top three has been largely consistent, averaging 55.19 since the 2022 T20 World Cup final, with handsome aggregates from Gill (732 runs @73.2), Kohli (554 runs @50.36) and Sharma (449 runs @49.88). Eight individual hundreds have been scored by India during this phase, all coming from the top three.

But numbers won’t mask the horrors of their limited ODI journey. From a winning position in Chennai, India threw away a series decider and their reputation because their batters couldn’t make up their minds on how to play spin. It’s a matter of application, said Sharma after the loss, but India are yet to find two batters barring Kohli who can consistently anchor the middle overs. Suryakumar got the opportunity to seal No 4 for himself. But he got three first-ball dismissals.

When a captain throws his weight behind someone promising “seven-eight” chances, it’s generally assumed his position too won’t be tinkered with. But in Chennai, Suryakumar warmed his chair watching Rahul, Axar Patel and Hardik Pandya bat ahead of him. Reason? “He plays spin really well which is why we wanted to hold him back and give him the last 15-20 overs where he could play his game,” said Sharma after Wednesday’s loss. Expecting a batter to adapt to one-dayers, then asking him to stay back because the management feels it suits his T20 game, is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

There’s still more. This was one of the rare series where India fielded only left-arm slow bowlers–Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav in Mumbai before adding Patel in Visakhapatnam and Chennai. Yuzvendra Chahal hasn’t been in the mix since his shoulder injury in January, and neither Ravichandran Ashwin nor Washington Sundar’s off-spin has been considered. On the other hand, Australia fielded a leg-spinner (Adam Zampa), a part-time off-spinner (Glen Maxwell) and a left-arm slow bowler (Ashton Agar) in the series. So while Australia opted for more bowling variety, India had to depend largely on Kuldeep for wickets.

And he did too. Not only was he the pick of spinners (16 wickets at an SR of 25.6 and economy of 5.40), such has been Kuldeep’s overall impact that India may be tempted to pick him ahead of Chahal for now.

It’s no secret India need Jadeja and Patel more for their batting than their bowling. A case in point is how Jadeja was called upon in every match of this series, once pulling off a win with Rahul in Mumbai and nearly doing it with Pandya in Chennai. This strategy won’t change, not as long as Jadeja and Patel can bowl at least 15 overs and Pandya complements them. With Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj fronting the bowling, India have no apparent reason to panic despite massive disclaimers like the unavailability of Jasprit Bumrah, Deepak Chahar and Prasidh Krishna. It has been like this for some time now. All is still well. India are focussing on the process, not the result.

Now, where have we heard that before?

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    Somshuvra Laha is a sports journalist with over 11 years' experience writing on cricket, football and other sports. He has covered the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup, the 2016 ICC World Twenty20, cricket tours of South Africa, West Indies and Bangladesh and the 2010 Commonwealth Games for Hindustan Times.

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