Three weeks after a historic Test series victory, Virat Kohli’s men clinched the ODI series beating Australia by seven wickets in the decider at the MCG, their maiden bilateral series win in the country, to end the tour of Australia on an unprecedented high.
If the Test series win reinforced their credentials as a dominant force in the longer format, the ODI series triumph signalled they are ready for the World Cup that starts in five months.
Like in the Test series, they were ruthless Friday. Choosing to bowl first, India restricted Australia to a middling 230 before chasing down the target with four balls to spare. And again, like the Test series, a lot of variables fell into place in this ODI, lessening Kohli’s headaches.
Amid other concerns, the series ODI began with two key players, Hardik Pandya and K L Rahul, sent home. They were also over-reliant on their top three, they had a flimsy middle order, former captain M S Dhoni was on the wane, and they didn’t know the best bowling combination.
Suddenly, they looked like a team beset with problems in the World Cup year with many knots to untie. The defeat in the first match only magnified the vulnerabilities of the team.
But in the span of five days, rather than disintegrating like so many other teams riding calamity, India bounced back resoundingly to illustrate that they can indeed be World Cup contenders. No one symbolised that better than Dhoni. The former skipper was perhaps the most scrutinised man in the series, not entirely without reason as he has been treading a lean patch. Critics felt he had lost his fabled hitting and finishing abilities, that he was past his prime and that he was overstaying his welcome. They were proved wrong on every count after he scored half-centuries in every match, the last two of match-defining dimensions.
Kohli extolled Dhoni’s contributions after clinching the series: “He is one of the most intelligent cricketers and he is not someone who is not aware about what needs to be done. As a team, we are totally in sync with what he is doing.”
While he no longer blasts his runs or bisects the gaps with surgical precision, there are few masterful architects of a run-chase, few better runners between the wickets, or few blessed with the cricketing intelligence of Dhoni.
So much so that the last two matches proved Dhoni is still as indispensable as he used to be, and just by being in the middle, Dhoni reassures the team. The latest knock was another classic: he anchored the innings, let stroke-makers rally and blossom around him and steered the wheels of a chase.
Though the run-rate ballooned at times, Dhoni seldom panicked. His nonchalance rubbed off on Kedar Jadhav, in the third ODI, and Dinesh Karthik. Between overs, Dhoni was seen talking tactics with them, advising them to be cautious or aggressive against a specific bowler. Sometimes, he was seen telling them which stroke he thought could be effective.
The finishing skills of Jadhav and Karthik, too, augur well for the team. Jadhav, no doubt, has shown his potential in the past but has been injury-plagued and inconsistent. But when he’s in sync, he can provide stability as well as destructibility that’s required of a number 5 or 6.
“He’s somebody who plays some unorthodox shots and great shots in the middle, so it takes that pressure off me when you’re looking to go right until the last over,” said Dhoni.
The importance of Jadhav and Karthik couldn’t be emphasised more, as both can bat anywhere in the order, can switch roles according to circumstances and are calm under pressure. While they are not as refined as a Dhoni in finishing matches, they can fulfil the duties without much fuss.
Likewise, Kohli will be pleased with the comeback of medium-pacer Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who with Jasprit Bumrah, could be the captain’s trusted new-ball and death-over pair in the World Cup. Kumar, after missing out most of the Test season with injuries, showed he has was back to his near-best and he can be menacing with the new ball as well as the old one.
His death bowling in Adelaide was exemplary, his assorted bag of knuckle balls and yorkers incomprehensible to Australian batsmen. Not to discount Mohammed Shami, who was stifling in all three matches.
And with leggie Yuzvendra Chahal picking six wickets in the match, Kohli will be spoilt for choice in bowling options. He reiterated the utility of a wrist-spinner, their ability to take the pitch out of the equation with their variations. He’s also happy with the way different players are taking match-winning responsibilities.
“If you see, it has been a team performance in all three series and everyone has contributed, which is a very good sign for the world cup. If everyone is contributing in different stages then only you can win a big tournament,” he said.
All of a sudden, Kohli is beset with a happy headache. But he won’t bother until the celebrations Down Under are over.