Ravi Shastri and Bharat Arun, the cheeky Friends of Curators in India, would have wished they were back at the Wankhede Stadium. At least, a verbal spray at the home association’s curator could have provided a release of sorts. The utterly flat Perth track, where nostalgia over bouncier WACA days has been a cliche for a while now, reminded them how ordinary the Indian bowling attack can look on flat pitches. South Africa crushed them on paata tracks in India, who needed a Chennai pitch that offered bounce and turn to register a blushes-saving second-win of that ODI series. The South Africa series hadn’t featured R Ashwin, who limped after four overs in the first game, and Ravindra Jadeja, who wasn’t selected, and perhaps, their return led to an illusion of strength.
Perhaps, the presence of the two frontline spinners had lulled Dhoni & Co. into optimism that they can give him control. Now we know, if we didn’t realise it before, that’s not the case. If the spinners aren’t at the top of their art, and extend themselves even, the ODI team will have to re-familiarise themselves with strife. If one believes Dean Jones, the former Australian batsman, the other tracks in the series too could be similar. If he is proven right, and when Ishant Sharma, whose finger injury the Indians didn’t want to aggravate by playing him in the first ODI, returns, will India dare to play just one spinner, and go with four seamers? It not only weakens the batting but also raises the question of trust over the seamers. The last time India played on a paata track before Perth was in Mumbai against South Africa, who raked up 438 and where Dhoni couldn’t even use the full quota from his two seamers. Bhuvneshwar went for 106 in his 10, and Mohit Sharma was thumped around for 84 in 7 overs.
Good total, not good enough
The five-wicket loss, after India made 309, can’t be pinned on the spinners alone, as batsmen also need to gauge what constitutes a match-winning total. Such is the nature of the beast of modern-day cricket that the 169 runs Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli added in 32.2 overs can seem on the slow side. The run-rate was 5.2 for those overs, with Kohli on 76 from 82 balls and Sharma adding 89 from 112 balls in that period of play. However, this ‘shortcoming’ is relatively easier to correct once they are able to pin down the ideal total in their minds.
It’s the spinners and Dhoni’s reliance on them that will need a quick turnaround. The reliance on Ashwin and Jadeja to do the job wasn’t startling by itself, as it would have been silly to think otherwise in the first game of the tour. Even with the knowledge that the two spinners had thrived on helpful tracks against South Africa at home. Ashwin had impressed in the WC as well, on pitches that had movement for seamers and bounce for him, and he is on a purple patch, growing more aware of his art. But Dhoni needs to find a way out.
On Tuesday, there was a period when Umesh Yadav had started well, having given just 11 runs in his first three runs, rapping George Bailey on his gloves, and hurrying him up in general. But Dhoni removed him out of the attack, and introduced spin from both ends from the 18thover. Perhaps, on such days, he should carry on with a seamer for a while. The decisions taken in the heat of battle will have to be smarter; there is always a risk with everything, just that the lesser risk that gives a greater chance at producing wicket needs to be probed. It wasn’t a grave mistake that Dhoni jumped to Ashwin and Jadeja at that point as he didn’t expect the floodgates to open, but it’s something to keep in mind for the remainder of the series.
The reliance on the two spinners, Ashwin and Jadeja, shouldn’t startle us but neither should their profligacy in their first big overseas match after a while, if one thinks about it. The Australians hadn’t even picked any spinner in the side. So the case was loaded against them, but Dhoni’s confidence in them was understandable. However, by his own admission, Dhoni was surprised by the way the spinners bowled. “I never thought it will be the spinners who will have a very bad day and the others will have to share the responsibility. It was the spinners who could have bowled better if they could have avoided the easy boundary deliveries.”
And there were a few “easy” deliveries from both Ashwin and Jadeja. Worryingly for Dhoni, it came early on in their spells and he couldn’t even wriggle out a few steady overs from the pair. Dhoni, we know, loves control and thrives on what at times even feels like a sense of drift. The overs go by, the singles and twos come, the camera pans to stone-faced Dhoni, who some times shrugs his shoulders, whispers a suggestion or two, rotates his fielders around, suddenly a wicket falls, and then things start to change. Often a check on the runs opens a crack in the opposition. For that, he needs his spinners to be almost robotic in their control on these surfaces. Often, in the recent times, they haven’t risen up to his expectations. Tuesday was one more such day.
Ashwin was a touch short to start with and things began to spiral out of control when Bailey came up with two reverse-swept boundaries. Already, the two batsmen were using their feet with admirable ease but it was in the 25th over that they gained complete control. Ashwin hadn’t bowled well, and been particularly errant with his lengths. But if he could toss them up, slow them up, perhaps the tide could change. He tried. Twice the ball was thrown back from the long-off and the straight boundary, and once, it came back from the point boundary. That was that. Ashwin was pulled out of the attack, and with Jadeja too unable to stem the flow, India were out of the game.
It wasn’t just the big hits though that did the spinners in. Dhoni has to also think about the ones and twos. Not easy to plug on good days, and very tough on days such as this when the spinners were off-key. It would be tempting for the Australian networks to show the big hits, but the real heartwarming, and effective set of visuals, would be all the hard running that Bailey and Smith did. Smith, who hasn’t got tired yet of belting the Indian bowlers, and George Bailey, whose love for the Indian spin attack on non-turning tracks perhaps made the selectors chose him over Shaun Marsh, flowed along uninterrupted.
Clearly, India have a problem on their hands and it will require some resourcefulness from Dhoni and exceptional execution of skills from the spinners to do the job.