“How hard has Australia made this? Unbelievable. It started to sink when Glenn Maxwell got out,” Mathew Hayden was morose, almost sighing on air with two overs left in the chase. He was absolutely spot on. This Australian batting is an iffy, bumbling, nervy, wobbly unit that can combust at the slightest hint of spark in the opposition. It was telling that they just about managed to cross over because two fast bowlers were in the middle, and who showed some common sense and pluck to just about limp over the line off the last ball. What this close-loss would have meant for India, and other teams around the world for that matter, is that you are never ever out of a game when Australians are chasing – keep running in, keep squeezing in the pressure with some dot balls, and let the claustrophobia trigger in a panic.
Chasing 127, Australia were cruising at 89 in little over 13 overs when Maxwell became the third wicket to fall – chasing a clever legbreak from Yuzvendra Chahal that started from outside off and broke further away. With the instinct of a showman, Maxwell went for the big one but ended up slicing it high to long-off. Then clammy hands and chaotic headspace seized Australia as they contrived to slip to a position where they needed 13 from the last over. Luckily for them, two things happened: the wiser heads of fast bowlers in Pat Cummins and Jhye Richardson were in and Umesh Yadav had to bowl that final over.
“Get that long-on in!” screamed Sunil Gavaskar just before the last ball. It was a wise call but MS Dhoni, who was making all the field calls at that point, and Virat Kohli, turning grumpier by the second at deep midwicket, didn’t do it. It was the most sensible move – if not in the circle at least three-fourths to the boundary to cut off the possible second run. Especially, when the last ball was going to be really full and on the stumps as Yadav had attempted. But the man was too deep and the batsmen completed the two runs to finish the job.
Did Dhoni’s decision not to take singles at the end of Indian innings, with Chahal on the other end, also play a part in the final denouement? You would have to be a hardcore Dhoni fan to ignore it. Especially when he was struggling to connect with his attempted hits. The last few overs were a blur of heaves-and-misses or Dhoni just standing there, refusing singles. It was easy to see why he was doing it – no confidence in Chahal and the batsmen to follow but considering Chahal was batting at No.9, that decision had to be taken. He could have perhaps started to deny singles for the last two batsmen. But it was one of those in-the-heat-of-the-moment decisions and Dhoni obviously knows and doesn’t rate the batting skills of the last three batsmen. But it did cost a few runs in the end. Not just denying singles but also his struggles with the big hits.
Dhoni has to do bring about at least one change in his game when it comes to power-hitting. His attempted on-side heaves aren’t coming off consistently these days as more often than not he seems to be rather late on the ball. He needs to find a way to try hitting through the off side. He did once, slicing a lovely six over covers in the last over — it isn’t a shot that he plays normally but it’s something he has to think about more. Else the fast bowlers tie him with deliveries on the stumps, getting it to skid off back of length and not giving him anything full. As of now, his offside scoring shot is the one he chops down on the ball through backward point in hope of getting two runs. Opponents have begun to place that deep backward point fielder more squarer for him to cut off the boundary.
But India lost the game even before Dhoni’s attempted slogs. What happens when batsmen are thinking about a possible spot in the World Cup and forget the micro picture of here and now? Especially, when the team’s selection too, understandably at this point, is geared to test out who can clinch the few remaining spots for the big tournament. The match was lost when the Indian batsmen chose to keep going for the shots when some cricket smarts were required, especially considering the lack of lower-order batsmen in the team. In 4.2 overs — from 8.4 to 13 overs – the batsmen kept going for their shots, kept failing and dragged India into a hole. The pitch was slow and a touch spongy — sort of where the ball holds up a bit occasionally. Almost immediately, the ideal length for pacers was clear: short of a length and see if you can cut it in a bit.
Meltdown after Maxwell
As it turned out, Australian batsmen found themselves in strife after Maxwell got out in the chase. Maxwell is an interesting character. A perfect way how the world (outside Australia) see him and how Australians sweat about him came in a nice interaction between Sanjay Manjrekar and Hayden. Even as Hayden talked about how he wishes Maxwell would learn to control himself and learn to finish a game, Manjrekar went, “But he wouldn’t be Maxwell then? He would be a great batsman like Virat Kohli” In other words, this is how the world has come to see and accept Maxwell — a nice little cameo, a penchant for hitting boundaries with mixture of intelligent and outrageous shots but self-destruction is always around the corner. Hayden was surprised, “Why would you say that Sanjay?” and he went on talk about how he and Australia believe Maxwell has the goods to be the big player in all three formats but how he just doesn’t seem to learn. Australia’s World Cup would come down to the growth of Maxwell — can he, will he transform?
India would have to find a better team combination going into the next few games. The focus will understandably be on that showpiece event in England three months from now. They will use this series to see whether Rishabh Pant can find himself at this level and ask more of himself to be that middle-order batsman they desperately need. Bereft of partners and struggling to come to terms with this pitch, Dhoni couldn’t do much.
At one point in the game, Hayden nailed the issue for both teams: “Australia had a steady solid unit going into 2003 and 2007 World Cup; We had great stability, no doubt (about our XI), all questions marks handled, those are the teams who do well in a big tournament.” India aren’t yet there, Australia is far worse off in that regard.