Collectively, the Indian bowling attack was put to the sword in the first ODI at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) on Friday. Mohammed Shami was the lone saving grace, although Ravindra Jadeja, too, returned with a decent economy rate – a little over six runs per over – on a flat track. Especially, in the middle-overs, India looked clueless as they struggled to make inroads, while Aaron Finch, David Warner and Steve Smith laid the foundation of a resounding Australian victory.
Under the pump, India badly missed a sixth bowler.
Hardik Pandya’s lower-back injury has been preventing him to play as a seam-bowling allrounder. He is playing as a specialist batsman instead and without his overs, the Indian bowling unit looks crippled. With the likes of Navdeep Saini, Yuzvendra Chahal and even Jasprit Bumrah leaking runs in the first ODI, India didn’t have a back-up bowling option to fall back on.
Every bowler can have a day off. Saini was playing his first international match in Australia and going by the BCCI press release on the eve of the game, the fast bowler had complained of “back spasm”. He went for plenty, as also Chahal. Between 15 and 40 overs, Australia scored 188 runs for the loss of two wickets before they added another 110 runs in the last 10 overs.
At the post-match press conference, Pandya addressed the issue. “I think, maybe, we will have to find someone who has already played (for) India and groom them and find a way to make them play,” Pandya told reporters.
“… more than injury, it is about the sixth bowler’s role. If someone is having a bad day, so the other guys get more cushion,” he added.
Pandya spoke about working on his bowling and that he will bowl again “when the time is right”. Till then, India are likely to be without a seam-bowling allrounder to get the balance right.
The real problem is that beyond Pandya, India’s seaming allrounder cupboard is bare. In fact, Ravindra Jadeja is the only cricketer in the team who is two-dimensional, although he is a spin-bowling allrounder. Because of the Covid situation, the BCCI has sent a jumbo squad to Australia, but there’s apparently nobody who can be groomed into a specialist seaming allrounder.
The erstwhile selection committee had tried Shivam Dube, but in 13 T20Is and one ODI, the Mumbai allrounder failed to inspire confidence at international level. Tamil Nadu’s Vijay Shankar was sent to the 2019 World Cup in England, as the then selection committee felt that he could chip in with a few overs of medium pace in the middle. However, in 12 ODIs and nine T20Is he had four and five wickets respectively before falling out of favour. Economy-wise (6.22), Shankar had a decent IPL as a back-up bowler, but international cricket is a different ball game and both he and Dube aren’t sharp enough to make an impact unless conditions are assisting them.
India are probably the only elite cricket team at the moment not to have a specialist seaming allrounder. England boast of Ben Stokes, Australia have Marcus Stoinis, South Africa can fall back on Chris Morris, New Zealand have Daryl Mitchell and Jimmy Neesham, while West Indies bank on Dwayne Bravo and Jason Holder.
As regards to India, if the selectors are to follow Pandya’s suggestion – grooming someone who has already played for India – they hardly have anybody apart from Dube and Shankar to choose from. Shardul Thakur is in the squad and he is no mug with the bat. But at 29 years of age, it’s probably a little too late to groom him as a proper seaming allrounder. Amid the influx of talented batsmen and quick bowlers, this is one area in Indian cricket where bench strength is poor.
Back to Dhoni’s time
Allrounders formed the bedrock of India’s success in limited-overs cricket in the early 1980s. India won the 1983 World Cup in England followed by the 1985 World Championship of Cricket in Australia. Kapil Dev towered over the rest, but both Roger Binny and Madan Lal were pretty decent lower-order batsmen apart from their effective medium pace bowling, while Mohinder Amarnath provided additional options. Ravi Shastri was a genuine spin-bowling allrounder.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Manoj Prabhakar was the team’s premier seaming allrounder. After Sourav Ganguly’s arrival, he and Robin Singh, for a while, shared the responsibility of bowling seamers in the middle-overs. Ganguly wasn’t quick but he swung the ball. Sachin Tendulkar bowled both slow-medium and spin, and could be trusted upon as a back-up bowler.
Almost throughout his career as India captain, MS Dhoni, however, was bereft of a seaming allrounder option. But the master tactician made up for the void by very effectively using the part-time spin of Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Kedar Jadhav to choke the opponents in the middle-overs, especially in Indian conditions. Sometimes he used Virat Kohli’s medium pace as well.
The problem for Kohli is that this Indian team doesn’t have multi-dimensional cricketers – batters can’t bowl and the bowlers can’t bat. Kohli himself seems to have lost confidence in his bowling – he hasn’t bowled in ODIs since a two-over spell against Sri Lanka in Colombo in August 2017. Jadhav’s loss of form and the subsequent omission from the Indian limited-overs squad meant that the team doesn’t have a part-time spin-bowling option either.
Striking the right balance
Maybe, India missed a trick by not playing an extra bowler on a featherbed in the first ODI at the expense of a batsman. Given that Pandya is in excellent batting form, six bowlers instead of five might have helped. Then again, it was the series opener against a full-strength Australia and the team management probably chose to take a more pragmatic/defensive approach. Rohit Sharma’s absence could be another reason why the think-tank decided not to go light on batting. In favourable conditions, India has the potential to run through a side, playing five specialist bowlers.
But in a three-match series, if another belter is laid out for the second ODI at the SCG on Sunday, Kohli and Co will have to take a call in terms of striking the right balance.
Why the cupboard is empty
Who can fit the bill of a fast-bowling all-rounder? Is there a spinner who can provide more balance?
Shivam Dube: Can play big shots and bowls medium pace. But he has failed to make an impact in whatever little international cricket he has played. Also, had 129 runs, four wickets and an economy rate north of 8 in 11 IPL matches this term.
Vijay Shankar: Like Dube, he is also more of a bit-and-pieces allrounder. Batting is his strength. Bowled a match-winning over in an ODI against Australia at Nagpur last year, taking two wickets. Kept things tight in the IPL, but he needs more pace to start with at international level.
Has the ability to bowl in Powerplays. But a batting average of 13.78 in List A cricket and 18.20 in first-class cricket doesn’t make him a potential allrounder candidate.
Washington Sundar: He is in the T20I squad. Bowls fastish off-spinners and can handle the new ball. But the youngster needs further improvement both in batting and bowling to graduate to the ODIs.
Axar Patel: The left-arm spinner topped Delhi Capitals bowling charts in terms of economy rate in this IPL. Can hit the ball hard as a batsman. Has played 38 ODIs and 11 T20Is. At the moment, though, Ravindra Jadeja is occupying the specialist spin-allrounder slot.
Kedar Jadhav: Had a forgettable IPL with the bat. Didn’t bowl at all. Wasn’t picked for the Australia tour. A player who is past his prime.
Krunal Pandya: A decent batsman, who bowls tight left-arm spin. Has 18 T20Is under his belt. But he is not a better option than Jadeja.
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