WITH 18 overs to go at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on Sunday, Australia were still 111 runs away from sealing a premature series win. Young Barinder Sran had been taken apart in his comeback over for 11 runs while Ishant Sharma had removed the well-set Shaun Marsh, exposing Australia’s lower middle-order for the first time all series. India appeared to have finally found an opening. Dhoni threw the ball to Umesh Yadav. A year ago in the World Cup, the muscular pacer had repeatedly struck upon his return to the crease.
As the new-man Mitchell Marsh came on strike on the third delivery of the over, Dhoni focused his field rather openly towards the off-side. He now had men in place at third-man, point, deep cover, short cover and mid-off. Sran had been moved squarer at fine-leg, suggesting that the line be outside off-stump so that even if Marsh does attempt a pull, the ball is likelier to go towards the fielder. The first two deliveries were relatively on target. The second one actually had Marsh attempting a pull but the ball only got the bottom of the bat and trickled down to mid-on. The next two deliveries landed exactly where they shouldn’t have, or rather where Dhoni had not planned for them to land.
Not surprisingly, both ended up speeding across the MCG outfield and crossed the ropes. The first was short and angling towards the right-hander’s pads. It sat up to be pulled and the younger of the Marsh brothers duly obliged. Dhoni put his gloves to his face. All he could do was hope that the next one isn’t as bad.
Unfortunately, it was worse. It pitched on a length and slanted towards the pads. Marsh just needed to tickle it towards fine-leg to the same spot from where Sran had been moved earlier in the over. Dhoni immediately seemed to gesture towards Yadav. But the bowler had by then turned around and walked away. And for the umpteenth occasion in the series, the Indian ODI captain stood helpless, having been let down by his bowler again.
An open secret
It’s an open secret now. India are struggling with their bowling Down Under and Dhoni seems to have no answers. Incidentally, in an interview to this paper, veteran left-arm pacer Ashish Nehra — who will soon be in Australia for the T20 series that follows the ODIs — had lamented about how the Indian selectors had tried numerous bowlers over the last four years since he slipped into oblivion and were still struggling to find a settled attack.
“It is not that you had four or five sets of bowlers. India has tried more than 25-30 bowlers in last three-four years. All apart from me,” Nehra had said.
Dhoni’s plight in the first three matches where his bowlers have hardly looked like defending totals of 310, 309 and 296 just accentuate how true Nehra’s words were. And how India aren’t even close in fixing this major dilemma.
That Yadav, who’s on his third tour of Australia, should still struggle to put six balls on the spot that his captain wants and expects him to is one of the many signs why nobody would like to be in Dhoni’s shoes presently. To the extent that at times you feel apathy towards him, not really a sentiment any international captain would want to be at the receiving end of. But press conference after press conference, he has had to come and explain why his bowlers have come across as being toothless against the might of the Aussie batting machine.
If Yadav has been erratic — which by now you expect of him — the only stable aspect of Ishant Sharma’s bowling at Brisbane and Melbourne is that his man-bun has remained in place. Australia and Ishant have always had a mixed relationship. It was here that he announced himself — just think back to that spell against Ricky Ponting in Perth. But it is also Down Under, where he’s had some rather forgettable moments with the ball. He’s added a couple in the last two matches. Forget the fact that even after appearing in 68 Tests and 78 ODIs, the Delhi pacer still has to rely on Dhoni to sort out his bowling rather than being a mentor to his junior colleagues.
Too many extras
The worst part about Ishant’s performance has been his completely loose radar. He bowled eight wides in Brisbane, four of which came within the first three overs of his first spell in coloured clothing in over a year at the Gabba. India overall gave away 19 extra runs in that game, and ended up bowling nearly two extra overs as a result. And it was Ishant, who seemed to have taken a major step up in 2015, who was expected to shoulder and guide the Indian attack during this series. Like everyone else, he’s been a letdown though. Though not one for openly discussing his bowlers’ frailties, Dhoni has been forced to do so over the last 10 days.
“As I said there were instances. For example, if you take the deep fine leg slightly wider and that’s one area where you don’t want to get hit for a boundary. And that’s where off the two next balls, back-to-back boundaries are hit. It’s a bit disappointing because the bowlers have played a lot of games, and you want to avoid that kind of a boundary,” he said after the series was lost in Melbourne.
But it looks unlikely that his bowlers will get their act right anytime soon, which means Dhoni might be left with his gloves over his face a few more times before the tour is over.