India’s overwhelming dominance in the One-Day International series was fashioned primarily by two things – the top-order batting led by Virat Kohli, and the spin bowling of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. While Kohli was spectacular, and Shikhar Dhawan easily the second best batsman on either side, Rohit Sharma also made a vital century when needed most. But while the top-order guns were blazing, the middle order has left India with problems to ponder as they fine-tune preparations for the 2019 World Cup. On the other hand, the wrist-spin duo has added immeasurably to the team’s arsenal.
In taking stock of the win, the credit ledger far outweighs the debit side, but while the team must enjoy its great show to the hilt, the quiet backroom planning will have already started for what needs course-correction as India aim to get as close to perfect as possible for the World Cup.
In the middle order, Hardik Pandya batted at No. 5, with MS Dhoni coming in at No. 6. Kedar Jadhav was slated to come in at No. 7 in the first ODI. In the second, India won by nine wickets, so no one from Ajinkya Rahane downwards had to bat.
The same batting order was followed in the third ODI, with Jadhav getting to the middle this time. With the Maharashtra batsman injured after that and Shreyas Iyer playing the next three games, the order changed again. In the fourth ODI, it was Iyer, Dhoni, Pandya. In the fifth it was Iyer, Pandya, Dhoni. The sixth game was decided by Kohli’s brilliance in the chase once again, meaning no one below Rahane batted.
Before the start of the ODI series, the No. 4 spot was looked at as something of a problem child. However, once Kohli hinted strongly that Rahane would be given a run at that position, it seemed like there would be a settled batting order. The shuffling, instead, has shifted lower down.
R Sridhar, India’s fielding coach, explained that it was part of the team’s plan to build finishers, and that the state of the game too dictated who would come out at which spot.
“The whole endeavour is for two things,” said Sridhar. “One: look at the state of the game and see which player can be the best at that particular situation. And two: to give our other batsmen, apart from obviously MS, a chance to go there and take the responsibility and take the game till the end. We want more finishers, we want to train and groom more finishers. At the same time, we also want our Nos. 5, 6, 7 to be able to go in and learn the situation and adapt to it. That is why you see the rotation, but very soon I think we’ll be settling into fixed Nos. 5, 6, 7 as we get closer to the World Cup.”
Given the dynamics that T20 cricket has introduced, a flexible lower middle order can actually be eminently sound strategy. For example, if the third wicket falls in the 42nd over, you would want a Pandya to come out even if you have Iyer/Jadhav or Dhoni in the hut. With eight overs left, you want the man who can hit big the most consistently, and who will take the least time to get going. Despite his meagre returns in the ODI series, Pandya is that man for India.
What goes unsaid is the question of whether Dhoni is still the man for India. Behind the stumps, surely in the change-room, and in general, the aura and presence of Dhoni is inspiring. His constant stream of advice and tips, particularly to Chahal and Kuldeep, has become the stuff of internet virality. But with the bat, Dhoni has seemed a shadow of his former self.
He already has 9967 runs in the 50-over format, and when he’s done, he’ll probably be competing with Adam Gilchrist for a spot in the all-time XI for when Earth plays inter-Galactic series. But is he the man India can afford to take to the 2019 World Cup? That is a question for the team management to ponder with urgency because if a change has to be made, it must be soon so that the new ‘keeper has some matches under his belt before the big event.
Perhaps the niggling issues with the middle order is what Kohli was referring to when he said after the series win, “We certainly feel really good as a team. But there are always areas,” Kohli said. “Even when we win, we sit down, because no one has a perfect game throughout. Even as a batsman, you know that some balls you were not in good position so you want to correct that in the next game. As a team as well, you always make mistakes even when you win, but the thing is you capitalise on it and correct those mistakes very soon during the course of the games. We will definitely sit down as a team and figure out the areas that need improvement. I’m not denying that there are no areas that need strengthening.
“We don’t want to live in a dreamland where we just don’t accept our mistakes. We know as a team we need to improve on certain things. We’ve identified those things, it’s up to us to discuss and improve on those things going forward and solidifying those areas for ourselves. I don’t want to disclose it (the areas for improvement). I don’t want to speak about it publicly. It’s a very personal thing about the team and I don’t want to say it in a press conference.”
On the other hand, the emergence of a viable striking option in the middle overs has given India’s attack the teeth it lacked earlier. “I think even in my last stint, Virat and me have always discussed that we need wickets in the middle overs,” said Ravi Shastri, the head coach. “You know we’ve got to somehow be able to attack and find ways of breaking partnerships and not allowing the game to drift. So that was the idea. And then identifying the right kind of people to do the job. Luckily for us, Kuldeep and Chahal have complemented each other beautifully. They bring great variety – it’s great for the viewer, it’s great for the spectator to see that kind of variety when they come to watch a cricket match. Not just batting or fielding, but some classic spin bowling.”
Bhuvneshwar Kumar, despite middling returns in this series, and Jasprit Bumrah have proven to be among the most reliable pace-bowling pairs in white-ball cricket, and with the wrist-spin twins now in the mix, India have an attack that can be a threat at multiple stages of a match. It’s a luxury most teams don’t have. When combined with the way the top order of Dhawan, Rohit and Kohli have been on fire, you can understand why India are a formidable unit in the 50-overs game, notwithstanding the middle-order niggle.
And that they put it across South Africa so comprehensively despite the regular stutters after a couple of wickets had fallen shows just how deep the top three batted which minimised the effects of any wobble, and how well the bowlers combined to make even par totals seem herculean.
“We have learnt some good habits on this trip,” said Shastri. “This is a young side, they have got a lot of tough tours coming up and I think they have conducted themselves and handled themselves extremely well on this tour. One thing history tells me, I have been coming here since 1992, there is not one South African side in the world that anyone can say is a weak side. You just look at their bilateral record and they are one of the great sides in bilateral cricket. I have followed this game for a long time. I have been a broadcaster as well and covered a lot of South Africa games and I know how they play. So I would like my boys to enjoy every bit of this series win. Whatever the scoreline is, they must enjoy because it doesn’t happen every day.”
India are already a frighteningly good one-day side, particularly when Kohli and the top order get going, which is almost in every match. If Pandya’s development as a bowler continues, they will have most bases covered with bowling too. As Kohli said, it’s not possible to be perfect throughout, but if they get their middle order sorted, India will come closer to it than any other side in world cricket.