It’s been a strange tour so far. From the outside, it might seem India were nearly whitewashed in the ODIs before they managed to stitch together two wins in the final one-dayer and first T20 game. Stats don’t lie, of course, but the situation hasn’t been as dire as it seems. If India hadn’t contrived to lose the fourth ODI, they could have turned around and said that the 50-over games in this series had come down to chasing. Ever since they started chasing in the ODIs, their performances shot up. And in the short format of T20, the scoreboard pressure of a large total works more often than not.
Those results also show up India’s weaknesses and strengths. Especially on flat tracks. Their attack isn’t equipped to handle the batting tracks since they don’t have bowlers who can bowl accurate yorkers or possess smart change-ups. More often than not it comes down to their batsmen bailing them out. In the first three ODIs, they batted well without finding the fifth gear that is needed to set a daunting target, and their bowling withered under consistent attack. The batsmen started to come to the party in the final two matches, and with it came the increased confidence that they carried to the T20 game where Virat Kohli found that extra gear, accelerating brilliantly in the end overs.
Suddenly, now, things are looking bright for the Indians. The influx of new bowlers has changed the complexion of the attack, and has made MS Dhoni, the captain who thrives on control from his bowlers, a far more relaxed man. As a captain he now has more options.
Ashish Nehra, the blast from the past, has the experience and the skill to cope with the aggressive Australian batsmen. Sample his first over on return – he last played for India in 2011- and how he tied up Aaron Finch in knots with his disciplined line of attack. There was a short one, couple of skidders that went across the batsman and one slower one as well. He doesn’t drastically vary his pace – perhaps a change in 10 km at the most – but has enough nous to mix them up judiciously. And he is one Indian bowler who is never shy of bowling the bouncers. In the past, Dhoni has often used him in the pressure situations – be it in the Powerplay or in the end overs and Nehra has more often than not delivered.
The other addition that made a difference is Jasprit Bumrah. With his unique action throwing off the Australian batsmen and with his ability to bowl yorkers, he has provided Dhoni with discipline and a new option. Here is Aaron Finch on Bumrah. “When you see it out of the hand, you think it’s a backfoot ball but it is actually a front foot ball, you just gotta keep that in mind for the last few games. He has been really a shining light for India,” Australian captain Finch pointed out.
It remains to be seen how Bumrah would fare after the batsmen get used to his action but here is the thing: With Nehra and Bumrah, Dhoni can at least be sure of what is going to come. What lines and lengths will be hit and he can set the field accordingly. Both can of course go for runs, especially the young Bumrah, but then there is a semblance of control and discipline which all captains prefer. With Umesh Yadav, or even the new Bhuvneshwar Kumar who seems to always err on the shorter side of the length these days, Dhoni wasn’t sure how he would be able to control the run rate. A good performance seemed liked a lottery. Not with Bumrah or a Nehra.
Even Hardik Pandya, who had a horror start, leaking 19 runs in his first over with five wides, came back strongly and was on a hat-trick at one point. His modus operandi was slightly different from Bumrah and Nehra, who chose to attack the line of stumps. Pandya showed a liking of bowling outside-off yorker lengths. A kind of line that someone like Mitchell Marsh thrives on.
The dot balls are beginning to show their presence now during India’s bowling efforts. For instance, during the first T20 game, Indians slipped in 44 dot balls as compared to Australia’s 34. There were three dot balls in the 18th over of the chase, bowled by Bumrah. In his first ODI, Bumrah speared in 11 yorkers, which must be a record of sorts for a young Indian bowler.
Standing behind the stumps, Dhoni understands the importance of these dot balls in a T20 game. “In the short formats, you tend to go for runs but we should see how many dot balls have been bowled. And we bowled quite a few, even initially, fours and sixes were going but the fast bowlers bowled dot balls. And after that Jadeja and Ashwin bowled well which was very crucial for us,” he said.
The arrival of new players has also thrown up more bowling options for Dhoni. Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina are pretty decent part-time bowlers who have the experience of bowling in pressure situations. In the ODI series, Dhoni didn’t have such luxury; he had to keep using bowlers who were bleeding runs, or go to Virat Kohli, who isn’t his usual go-to option when it comes to part-time bowlers.
Like an audio loop, Dhoni has been forever banging on about the importance of allrounders and the need for multi-dimensional players in the squad. “What I don’t want is the top five or six batters including the ‘keeper where you don’t have a bowling option. So if somebody goes for runs you don’t really know what to do at that point of time. And especially in this format, you will have players going for runs in each and every game. Somebody or the other will go for runs, and that’s the time when you want your part-time all-rounders to come in and give you that one over, because that one over can really help,” he said.
If the pitches help the spinners a bit, the combo of Ashwin and Jadeja become very potent options for Dhoni. But Dhoni knows that he will need as many bowling options as he can get to be remotely incisive on flat tracks. This T20 series is a dress rehearsal for the big event in India in March and Dhoni has couple more games to find the right combination, and the right set of players who can do the job for him.