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Short-term losses and long-term plans

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India_Australia_ODI_T20I_seriesThe bilateral series between India and Australia in Australia, the first of its kind, did not give an impression of happening in a country where there has always been a competition between bat and ball. Rather, it looked like Indian ODI conditions have been extended to the Australia continent.

First, the ODIs.

Despite Australian pitches not being conducive to seam or swing bowling, it has always been a place where a score of 275-280, batting first, was considered a match winning one. But this was not the case. Out of the 10 innings played, a score of 300 was passed a staggering 8 times. While the Indians have never been good at bowling in foreign conditions (or bowling for that matter), failing to defend two 300+ scores and a 295 in consecutive games was a new low, even for them.

Leaving aside the prowess of the Indian bowlers, or the lack thereof, let us focus on the selection and try to comprehend the rationale behind the selections of players like Rishi Dhawan. Of late, the selection panel has been fond of looking for all-rounders, deemed half-bowlers and half-batsmen by the team director Ravi Shastri on India’s tour to Sri Lanka.

The team’s first gamble with this species against a major team was the inclusion of Stuart Binny for the 2015 Tri-Series in Australia with the World Cup around the corner. He was eventually included in the World Cup squad. This time round, on the tour to Australia, a half bowler was selected who could not bat. Rishi Dhawan was the half-bowler, selected on the back of his performances bowling seam up on seaming wickets in the domestic circuit, and was introduced to bowl in part of world where there is no seam movement on offer.

The rationale behind leaving out India’s best bowler, R Ashwin, was that the conditions were not spin friendly. This should have been the reason to leave out Rishi Dhawan. It is high time that, apart from the core of the team, the players are selected according to the conditions.

Selection follies played an instrumental role behind India suffering a 4-1 defeat rather than winning 3-2. Ashwin’s absence in the 3rd ODI at Melbourne, where the ball was turning, eventually proved to be drastic for India. On a pitch where Ravindra Jadeja, with figures of 10-0-49-2, managed to strangle the batsmen from one end, pressure was easily let off from the other.

 

We all know how good Dhoni is in situations where he can strangle the game with the help of his spinners. Dropping the best bowler of the team after just one ordinary game was not a sensible option for the team management. This robbed them the opportunity to win the ODI series against Australia in Australia.

If bowlers were the bitter fruit for the Indian fans, then the batsmen were the sweet honey. Since the days of Sunil Gavaskar, Indians have always loved to watch their batsmen getting hundreds and shattering records; as Maxwell would say: milestone driven. This is exactly what they did against Australia as two of the top run aggregators in the series were Rohit Sharma (441 runs) and Virat Kohli (381 runs). The former’s insatiable hunger for big hundreds seems to be getting bigger as he scored consecutive hundreds in the first two games and a 99 in the fifth. Kohli continued his love affair with the Australian grounds as he too plundered two centuries. Shikhar Dhawan’s form was variable; he eventually scored runs albeit costing India a game in the process (68 off 91 in the Melbourne ODI) but years from now when anyone will look at his stats for the series it will look like Ave: 57.40 and Strike rate: 100.34; no qualms that cricket is milestone driven.

However, it wasn’t an elegant Rohit century or a suave Kohli century or any kind of century from Dhawan that was India’s saviour, but a century from the hero of IPL 2009, Manish Pandey, which came to India’s rescue and prevented a whitewash. Scoring your first century at a strike rate of 128.39 in a pressure chase to avoid a 5-0 defeat when your old king at the other end is out of form; this guy is a hero. But again, he is not part of the T20 squad even as a cover for the injured Rahane.

All is not well that ends well, at least for India’s ODI captain MS Dhoni. Hitting a six in the last over will not remedy the issues exposed in the series. Given that there are enough contenders to bat in the top four, he needs to take a call. He is not performing well in his role as a finisher. It is not even the question of scoring runs swiftly; even in the chase of 348, when 72 runs were needed at less than run a ball, all he needed to do was stay at the other end, but that did not happen.

While all seems rosier with the last fifth ODI win, the old king needs to take a call sooner rather than later.

On the flip side, the T20I series has been a total reversal in fortune for the Indian team with everything going according to the plan for the captain Dhoni. He has won umpteen games for India just by his sheer ability to strangle the game with his spinners. He won India the CWC11 by virtue of his mastery in juggling his spinners in the middle overs. In a way, this T20 series has been the complete reflection of shortcomings of the ODI series.

In the first T20, the indispensability of Ashwin was on display. At one stage it looked like Australia were cruising and even Ashwin was taken for 17 runs in his first over. From 89-1 in nine overs, they were restricted to 62 runs in the next 11 overs for the loss of nine wickets. The tormentors-in-chief, as always, were the spinners. Ashwin played the supporting role to Jadeja, efficiently stopping the flow of runs, which resulted in wickets.

 

The series also reflected the mindset of the two camps towards T20s with the World T20 almost a month away. The Aussies selected a 17-man squad for a home series, and tried every player including the 18th man, Usman Khawaja. India, on the other hand, were content to find the right combination and finalise the first XI for the World T20, though they have enough games in hand to practice, with a bilateral series against Sri Lanka and first of a kind T20 Asia Cup coming up.

Also, there was much anticipation surrounding the return of the India’s hero for CWC11 and, apparently their villain in the 2014 World T20. While there was much frustration when his role was limited to bowling in the first two T20s, his batting in the 3rd T20 brought back the memories of his innings (11 off 21) in WT20 final against Sri Lanka, but he managed to help Raina steer India to complete a 3-0 whitewash in the last over.

With the India’s ascendency to the top of the ranking created much commotion, India’s meteoric jump from number eight to the number one in a matter of three matches shows the inadequacy of ICC T20 rankings.

Keeping in view the preparations for the World T20, India will be happy with their bowler’s and top order’s performances but they need to give their middle and lower middle order the match practice to fine tune their preparations for a tournament they are expected to win with home conditions to buttress them. MS Dhoni, after being 0-4 down in the tour managed to win last four to end the tour with 4-4 score line.



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