Indian cricket team’s unsettled nine-to-five shift

India still seemed to have a 9-5 conundrum, and a weak West Indies outfit should have been the best opportunity for them to get some clarity on it. The 3-1 series win was dominated more or less by the same players.

Written by Bharat Sundaresan | Kingston | Updated: July 11, 2017 1:35 pm
Indian cricket team, Team India, India cricket, MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Cricket, Indian Express Seldom ever has Dhoni looked as forlorn as he had in India’s futile chase in the fourth ODI at Antigua. (Source: AP)

WHEN VIRAT Kohli & Co landed here straight from the Champions Trophy, their priorities were pretty straightforward. The opposition here for the ODIs was always going to be tepid and this was the perfect opportunity for India to build the base for the next big ICC event, the 2019 World Cup. Their run to the Champions Trophy final had been convincing but there were a few boxes that needed some ticking. India still seemed to have a 9-5 conundrum, and a weak West Indies outfit should have been the best opportunity for them to get some clarity on it.

That is exactly what Ajinkya Rahane did anyway by recording, by far, his best returns from an ODI series, 336 runs at 67.20. Though all those runs came as an opener, Rahane is likely to have done enough to, in all likelihood, seal the No.4 spot, where he was immensely successful during the 2015 World Cup, considering Kohli himself spoke about the right-hander’s flexibility.

But that apart, the 3-1 series win was dominated more or less by the same players — Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli with the bat — and Kuldeep Yadav and Umesh Yadav with the ball. And India leave the Caribbean isles with their 9-5 problem still pretty much in the air.

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A Trinidadian pocket dynamite turning the Sabina Park into his own private golf course perhaps will be the lasting image for India from their three-week, three-island Caribbean sojourn. And Evin Lewis delivered quite a few humbling parting licks to the Indian bowlers that they will find difficult to erase soon, especially not during their Kingston-London-Dubai-Mumbai journey.

But India’s loss in the solitary T20 against a mighty West Indies team was also kind of an anti-climax. India were always underdogs going into the match against a bunch of T20 behemoths who always seem to have a point to prove, especially on those odd occasions that they don the West Indian garb. Lewis’ century celebration was rather poignant as he threw away his helmet — much to Jeffrey Dujon’s chagrin in the commentary box — and the mood around Sabina at that moment could have been captured by a Twitter trend, #IPL contract.

So apart from some seriously bruised egos, the Indians wouldn’t be too fussed over the massive defeat on Sunday. But they will, however, be vexed over not having managed to find a long-term fix to certain areas of concern in their line-up, which will have to be fixed by the time the World Cup comes around. We look at some of those under-a-cloud positions in the Indian line-up, the options that they’ve already used and the ones that they have in waiting.

No5: Looking beyond the legend

MS Dhoni has made this his own since the last World Cup, having batted 18 innings at that number — nearly 60 per cent of the time — and his overall figures during that period are impressive. He’s averaged 52 and scored at a strike rate of 89.14. And if it weren’t for him getting on in years, and more importantly, the recent lull in terms of his customary big-hitting prowess, there would have been no talk of No.5 being a worry. His 114-ball 54 was pulled up in many circles as being a major reason for India’s only loss in the ODI series while chasing a paltry 190 in Antigua.

There have been knocks of an older vintage in recent months — the century against England in Cuttack and a couple of cameos in the past month — but will Dhoni be the same force in two years’ time at 38? The others used at that spot have included Suresh Raina, Manish Pandey and Ambati Rayudu. If not for a last-minute injury, Pandey should be the front-runner in case there is a further slide in Dhoni’s form. Dinesh Karthik ended the tour on a high and cannot be ruled out either.

No 6 and 7: More of the same

At the moment, there shouldn’t be any question marks over Kedar Jadhav, who’s made the position his since breaking into the team a couple of years ago, and Hardik Pandya slotting in nicely at these positions. An average of 70.14 and a strike rate of 122.75 are phenomenal numbers for Jadhav. And earlier this year, his match-winning century against England in Pune was arguably the most memorable breakout innings for a while.

Pandya, meanwhile, has proved to be the most influential seaming all-rounder in ODIs for India since Irfan Pathan. Kohli, though, had put India’s delay in going for the jugular while setting totals to the lack of exposure Jadhav and Hardik Pandya at No.7 have received in big-match situations, even though he’s reiterated that they’re both fit and ready. Jadhav faced only 26 balls at the Champions Trophy and India’s insistence on being rigid with their batting order in the Caribbean meant he faced only 46 here. Pandya, despite having finished the Champions Trophy in blistering fashion with that brutal 76, got to face only 26 balls. So if anything, in their cases, it was a missed opportunity.

No. 8: Up for grabs

Only three months ago, Ravindra Jadeja was on top of the world. He’d finished the Tests against Australia as the No.1 ranked bowler in the world, and his batting had come of age. He was supposed to be the first name being inked in after Kohli in all formats, but Jadeja has looked completely out of sorts ever since with the ball. He was roughed up by Sri Lanka in the Champions Trophy, where he finished with an average of 62.25 and went at nearly 6 an over.

And he was wicket-less in two matches here. His batting in the shorter formats has been a concern for a while. He hasn’t played an innings of note since a few stellar ones in New Zealand over three years ago. His run-out of Pandya was the tipping point of an otherwise awful tournament and it was his wicket in Antigua to a unnecessary shot that turned the game against India. And the tour symbolically ended with Lewis smacking him for a series of sixes, including one into the parking lot.

No 9: Salute the rising son

Kuldeep Yadav’s chinaman was the talking point of an otherwise drab ODI series. And with every West Indian batsman he bamboozled, the youngster seemed to be throwing the gauntlet to Jadeja and R Ashwin by outshining them. Ashwin’s ODI career is in a state of flux owing to some bizarre selection calls that have been made at his expense. Being dropped just after his best performance in this format since the last World Cup took the cake.

A few Tests against Sri Lanka should put him back amongst the wickets, and hopefully he can then take that confidence into resurrecting an otherwise hanging ODI career. With Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah likely to lead the Indian attack come 2019, there might only be one vacancy for a spinner, which on present form should go to Kuldeep. Ashwin and Jadeja might have some catching up to do, and so too India as they return home with more or less the same question marks that they left with.

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