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Monday, January 25, 2021

India’s time to come to life in Canberra dead rubber ahead of bigger battles

Although the third ODI against Australia is a dead rubber, there is a lot riding for India — A) Avoid a clean sweep, B) Enable the bowlers to regain rhythm, C) Show resilience and doggedness.

Written by Sandip G | Updated: December 1, 2020 10:31:34 pm
ind ausIndia will look to stave off a series sweep in the 3rd ODI vs Australia on Wednesday. (AP)

A strange caginess seems to have clutched Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami in this series. Shami’s reputation of erraticism, glorious one day and sloppy the next, is the defining thread of his career. But Bumrah has shown a staggering ability to blend into the conditions and formats. With the ease of flicking a switch, he changes his avatars, tools, thought patterns, and even instincts.

This year, though, has been an aberration, as it’s with most things. In New Zealand early in 2020 and Australia now, Bumrah has struggled with his lengths. In his alacrity to fix the malaise, he has messed up his lines. To nail both, he has limited his variations, using those as an obligation than as genuine weapons. So the off-cutters, slower deliveries and such-like variations have been used sparingly as if he’s bereft of self-belief. Bumrah betrays the impression that he is bowling within himself and not quite enjoying the whole process. He smiles less often, his eyes don’t glow as sparklingly as they used to, and the spunk seems to have deserted him a touch. Something seems to shackle him, which’s strange given that he had a splendid IPL.

Bumrah has grabbed only three wickets in eight ODIs this year, each scalp costing him 146 runs and 152 balls. His economy rate is still a laudable 5.76 but above his career rate of 4.66. Even in the two Tests in New Zealand, he was not anywhere near his usual standards.

It could just be a lean patch every athlete endures, only that Bumrah’s so central to India’s aspirations in this tour that they can’t afford him to have a poor series, or even an average one. Bumrah at his absolute peak is what India wants on this tour, especially as they would be without skipper Virat Kohli for three of the four Tests.

KL Rahul offered words of comfort after the second ODI: “It is about time a champion player like that will come back and deliver and get wickets for us. You also have to understand that in New Zealand and Australia, the wickets are so good to bat on. You will see top bowlers not getting wickets [once in a while]. So that is acceptable.”

Maybe, it’s just a matter of a single spell. Like batsmen frequently vouch for the one stroke that suddenly brings their touch back, they need that one searing spell to revive their self-belief. Or maybe a brilliant delivery could do the trick.

Jasprit Bumrah is congratulated by teammates after taking the wicket of Aaron Finch. (AP)

A lengthy spell upfront could catalyse the turnaround. Now that David Warner, the tempo-setter, is ruled out due to injury, Shami and Bumrah could breathe more freely. Separating the super-prolific Warner-Aaron Finch pair, which averages a shade under 100 against India, has been as tough as denying Steve Smith back-to-back hundreds. It’s almost half the job done. For Finch is not exactly the most fluent of starters. And whoever Australia choose to pair him with — Matthew Wade, Marcus Labuschagne or Alex Carey — they would consume time to bed into their new role. It presents Bumrah and Shami the ideal opportunity to attack full-throttle and settle into a rhythm.

Equally important is how Navdeep Saini is dealt with. Still cutting his teeth at this level, he should not be allowed to brood over the twin failures in Sydney, where he was concertedly targeted by the Australian batsmen. Benching him could further demoralise him. Having identified him as a potential pace spearhead in the future, he should not be let to drift, his confidence should not be left to wane. The temptation to replace him is understandable, with options like Shardul Thakur and T Natarajan lurking. But having invested in him, there’s no harm in persisting with him in a dead rubber.

READ | Team India falling apart at the seams

Like it happened with Kuldeep Yadav, who offers the team management an alternative to replace an underwhelming Yuzvendra Chahal. But Yadav is woefully short of game time — he was last spotted bowling on October 18, in an IPL game against Sunrisers Hyderabad. It was one of his better performances this year, his three overs conceding 18 runs. He could fare no worse than conceding 160 in 19 overs as Chahal has in this series. If he dusts up some old magic, he could push his case for Test matches too.

Some of India’s previous bowling attacks have looked inept the moment their names were listed in the squad. But the present crew features arguably two of the finest seamers ever, Bumrah and Shami. Saini, too, is touted as the future of India’s fast bowling. It would be a crying shame if they leave this tour without match-influencing performances. Winning the third ODI would be the stepping stone. The ODI series might be unsalvageable, but there are still the T20s and Test matches to be conquered.

So dead rubber though the third ODI is, there is a lot riding for India. A) Avoid a clean sweep, B) Enable the primary bowlers to regain the elusive rhythm, C) Show resilience and doggedness.

Of the three concerns, the second assumes the foremost priority. Precisely, because the nucleus would remain much the same through the series.

Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer and Navdeep Saini run during a training session. (PTI)

But Manuka Oval, with its historically flat surfaces and high scores, doesn’t seem to be the most ideal venue for orchestrating a turnaround. The totals in the last four ODIs here read 378, 262, 348, 323, 411, 210, 372, 289. Some of the Indians players would remember the last time they were here. The pursuit of 348 looked imminent before they lost nine wickets for 46 runs, eventually falling short by 23 runs. A repeat could be disastrous this time around.

Unless they arrest the losing streak, the adverse momentum will be too hot to handle or reverse, and Australia are ruthless in flogging a dead horse. It’s often the plight of visitors Down Under. They rarely recover from early knockouts. So by the time the Test series winks in, which is a little more than a fortnight away, their morale will be in pure shambles.

In a nutshell, though the third ODI is a dead rubber, there is much at stake for the Indian team. As much as it’s about restoring pride or saving face, it is about arresting a losing streak that can soon overwhelm them. It’s like the continent itself, it grows on you the more days you spend there. And in Bumrah’s hands are the keys to spare Team India this fate.

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