Right through last year’s World Cup in England, where they eventually lost in the semifinals, India escaped the shellacking that possibly awaited them had they lost Rohit Sharma early in the piece. He pulled them through to the last four where he fell cheaply and India suffered.
That scenario resurfaced in Mumbai as the imperious Australians stomped away first with the ball and then with the bat to expose India with a 10-wicket win with 12.2 overs to spare. Australia’s bowling oozed class — method and venom — and their openers ran away to Australia’s highest-ever opening partnership against India. In some ways, for the Australians, it was the reverse of what happened to them in their last ODI at the hands of England when they were humbled in the World Cup semifinal in a similar fashion.
The Indian problem was the brittleness of the middle order against quality opposition, and even the top order when Sharma departs early. The match gave enough problems to ponder — it isn’t a crisis but would need clarity of thought and intent to solve them. When Virat Kohli said he would drop himself down the order to accommodate Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul, it was couched in the context of the need to include all three in-form batsmen. The harsher truth probably is that the lower- middle order isn’t yet solid enough to soak up the pressure of early wickets against good bowling attacks.
Australia’s was a top-gun attack. Mitchell Starc, with his new modelled action where the arms are kept close to the body with the whole package a lot tighter, is now able to hit the good length and back of length with the new ball with greater confidence. Pat Cummins is a class apart and with Kane Richardson holding himself pretty well, it came down to the spinners. Just like old times. But Adam Zampa has already shown that he doesn’t back away from a contest and Ashton Agar whipped up memories of Daniel Vettori with his accuracy and the penchant to not allow batsmen any balls to cut.Shreyas Iyer was targeted by a series of bouncers by the seamers before falling for the old play — a full-length one angling away, a hesitant prod away from the body, and caught by the ‘keeper.
Iyer needs a fair run to make or break his career. He has the urges of a batsman who likes to feel the ball and the mind goes back to a similar dismissal against Dale Steyn a couple of years back in a tour game when the South Africans were here. Same stuff really — couple of shorts ones, lovely curlers outside off with Iyer constantly fishing, before he fell edging. He is at a crucial stage in his career, and some guidance and nurturing would perhaps go a long way. When the ball isn’t doing much, he won’t have any problems — and that is the bane of modern-day ODI cricket usually played on flat beauties. The pitch at Wankhede wasn’t a seamer-friendly track but had bounce and the Australians were getting the ball to rush.
And then India’s box of problems opened up. Once Iyer went, Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja rallied for a while but it was clear that their runs were going to come against the spinners.
As it has happened in the past, even in domestic cricket. Pant’s pull can be a bit iffy against quick bouncers. The head yanks back, the eyes retreat somewhere deep inside the skull, and the bat flays around. This time, Cummins’ bouncer not only clipped the bat-edge but ricocheted off the helmet — and Pant suffered a concussion and couldn’t take the field, leaving KL Rahul to don the ‘keeping gloves. Some bat-waving from Kuldeep Yadav took India past 250 but Aaron Finch and David Warner shot off the blocks with such furious intent that the match petered away rather quickly.
Dhawan drags on
The Indian problem was also evident during the 121-run partnership between Dhawan and Rahul in nearly 23 overs. One point is getting increasingly clear: India need to drop Dhawan in T20s — in this T20 World Cup year — as he is at a stage in his career when run rate is an issue.
The performance of the lower order can make it seem as if he played a responsible hand at the start but in the recent past, even on docile tracks, he has tended to drag a bit in the shortest format. India would do well to open with Rahul and Rohit and focus on sorting the middle order.
In his pomp, Dhawan had quite a few break-free shots, especially on Indian tracks. He would walk down the track or loft inside-out on the up over cover or shovel past square-leg, but now, his get-out-of-jail shot is the upper-cut or the open-faced dab to third man. Once bowlers deny him width, he sort of meanders on. Dhawan is still fine in ODIs but India would do well to take a call on his T20 career. Also, his ability to rotate strike has gone down — 51 dot balls offer enough proof. It also puts pressure on Rohit to accelerate at the top, and for someone who likes to take a bit of time, he is forced into taking a few risks.
When Dhawan was batting, it seemed he had settled on a score in the range of 250-265. But one has to take into account the state of the middle order for some of that circumspection, which only makes the task of sorting it a high-priority one.
Should one also be a bit worried about India’s bowling? West Indies too had shown that this ODI attack can not only be tamed but runs can be plundered – and it came down to whether Indian batsmen scored one run more than the opposition.
Another way to look at it is what would have happened if Indian bowlers had gone against the Indian batsmen. If Rohit had fallen early, the script could well have been similar to an extent. Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami did start off well against the Australians and Warner, in fact, had a couple of iffy moments. But Finch changed the complexion with a fine counter-attack. When the seamers hurled it fuller – Finch’s old problem used to be the full-length ball angling in – he creamed them through the offside. When Bumrah tried to extract bounce from back of a length, he stood on his toes to punch through point.
The first ODI between India and Australia was briefly interrupted when a kite landed on the field. (Express photo by Pradip Das)Soon, Warner also picked up and though there were some early flutters against Kuldeep Yadav, it was more because Finch was trying to slog him away. Once they re-focused, the right-hander unfurled a couple of gorgeous lofted sixes off Kuldeep and the runs kept coming in a flood. Without the cushion of a big score to defend, the Indians folded.
Even though one can hope that the bowlers ramp up their performances, it isn’t the case of poor planning or wrong personnel. The case is different with the batting – if the management shows more intent and plans out the line-up, it can start to click. They can’t afford to go against classy attacks with a hole in the middle and too much dependence on Rohit. What’s more annoying is that the middle- and lower-order problem hasn’t been fixed yet. And this isn’t a recent issue. India went into the World Cup after a two-year-preparation phase but without finding solidity in the middle. That hit them hard in the semifinal. Now, they have another World Cup near the end of the year and need to scramble hard to find the right personnel and give them enough matches.
If Rajkot on Friday proves to be a batting beauty without any bounce, some of the problems might be hidden, but considering they have been bit on the backside in the past, India would do well to put the house in order.
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