As much as the five-run defeat to South Africa would hurt the Indian team, the bigger worry would be the side strain off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin picked up during the ODI game in Kanpur. What initially seemed like a niggle was serious enough for the Indian team to summon the other off-spinner Harbhajan Singh as a cover. With four ODI games to go, India will be desperate for Ashwin to quickly return to action.
For the South Africans, unbeaten till now during this tour (expect for a warm-up T20 game), the potential absence of Ashwin will further improve their chances of continuing to dominate the hosts.
Ashwin has been India’s best bowler across formats this year and skipper MS Dhoni relies heavily on his match-winner. After hurting himself while diving to field off his own bowling, three overs into his second spell, Ashwin left the field. He returned but could complete only one over and bowled just 4.4 overs in all.
Ashwin’s absence meant Dhoni was without his most reliable bowler in the latter half of the innings and it allowed the South African batsmen, mainly AB de Villiers to tear into the Indian attack and score 109 off the last 10 overs.
In a game in which a total of 601 runs were scored by both teams, a bowler who does not concede a four or a six deserves more than a pat on the back. Ashwin did just that. Dhoni would have been pleased with how his strike bowler had not only kept it tidy but also took a wicket in his very first over — the ninth of the innings — when he outfoxed Quinton de Kock and had him caught in the slips.
How Dhoni would have loved his strike bowler to have bowled his full quota of overs on Sunday.
Dhoni used Ashwin for just one over in the early part of the game. Dhoni perhaps wanted to use Ashwin in the latter part of the innings and hoped the other bowlers would keep the South Africans in check till he re-introduced his strike bowler.
But in the third over of his second spell — the 32ndth of the innings — Ashwin dived to stop a shot from AB de Villiers off his own bowling and suffered a side strain.
The importance of Ashwin in the Indian bowling line-up can been gauged from how Dhoni struggled to keep the flow of runs in check once the off-spinner went off initially. The South African batsmen too knew that without Ashwin to worry about they could exert pressure on the Indian skipper.
For until then, Dhoni was in control of the game and the visitors were scoring at less than five an over.
Once Ashwin was unable to bowl, Dhoni suddenly was short of ideas. Dhoni had picked the one ‘fast bowler’ in the squad Umesh Yadav in place of medium-pacer Mohit Sharma after realising that the wicket may have a bit of juice early on.
He had hoped that Yadav would get a wicket or two with the new ball. But Yadav failed to bowl to his field.
While Dhoni had in his ranks Stuart Binny, Bhuvneshwar Kumar Amit Mishra, apart from Ashwin, only Mishra was effective by taking two wickets for 47 runs. Binny, Kumar and Yadav went for over 6.5 runs per over, Yadav being the most expensive at 7.10.
Suresh Raina chipped in and bowled seven overs but he and Binny went for a combined tally of 100 runs in 15 overs without taking a wicket. Ashwin’s injury made matters worse.
With the wicket getting slower, Dhoni would have loved to have Ashwin and Mishra bowl in tandem. AB de Villiers was set and batting alongside Du Plessis and slow bowlers could have made a difference. Dhoni had no option but to recall Yadav because Ashwin was out of action.
Yadav picked up the wicket of Du Plessis but the fast bowler was consistently erratic. With Mishra completing his spell in the 41st over, Dhoni had to figure out how to use his pacers. Ashwin came back on and bowled just one over.
When he needed his strike bowler the most, in the last 10 overs, he was unavailable.
He couldn’t have used Raina as De Villiers would have milked him. So the only option was to tell his pacers to bowl tight line. De Villiers sensed an opening as he saw Dhoni struggling with his bowlers. He first whacked Binny and then targeted both Bhuvneshwar and Yadav. They were easy meat for a player who was playing on 80 and just had to see-ball-hit-ball.
Despite Dhoni continuously asking them to bowl to their fields, none could keep the dangerous AB in check. AB then partnered with Farhaan Behardien and destroyed Yadav and Bhuvneshwar to collect 65 in the last five. Even as AB was going hammer and tongs, Ashwin grimaced after testing if he could bowl without feeling the pain. He shook his head and walked into the pavilion and was stationed there as AB batted like only he is capable of.