If you ever needed proof that India is a batting country, that batting resides in Indian DNA, you only had to look at Manish Pandey’s staggering century at Sydney. That innings wasn’t about ability alone, sure you needed a lot of it, but about the composure needed to finish a match. For someone playing his first significant international innings, his knowledge of how to pace himself and of where to score runs was uncanny. It was the kind of innings someone would be proud of playing with a hundred matches behind him.
There were a couple of things in Pandey’s favour. He has played a lot of first class cricket batting in situations that required a player to take control, he has a history of playing important innings in big matches and he has played a lot of IPL cricket which is a finishing school for batting under pressure. It might seem a distant correlation but he also comes from a progressive cricketing city that has produced players who are wonderful people and willing to share knowledge.
Pandey looked ready and showed the great depth in batting in India’s cricket system. The presence of Dhawan, Rohit, Vijay, Kohli, Rahane, Pujara, Raina and now Pandey (amidst so many quality players in domestic cricket) can be looked at the way Australia or New Zealand throw up seam and swing bowlers. But as this series in Australia showed, batting is but one facet of the game, widely celebrated maybe, but merely one of three or four needed to win games. If India lost 4-1 to what I still believe is a vulnerable Australian team, it is because bowling and the balance needed to win games was largely absent.
In the first three matches the batsmen gave the bowlers enough runs, if not to actually win a game but definitely to make things difficult. Whatever the scoreboard says, the truth is that the bowlers never looked like winning India a game. You could condemn Dhoni all you want but once the ball is in a bowler’s hands, he should be able to generate the intensity and discipline needed. If a captain has to draw that out of you, those basic ingredients, you have the wrong man.
And so the bowling must put its hand up and say it was inadequate. Time after time pressure was released because balls were allowed to drift into areas that the field wasn’t designed to defend. John Hastings might have made the cut in an Australian 2nd eleven before this series but once he had the ball, he bowled like he owned the script. None of India’s bowlers did that except for young Jasprit Bumrah who we should look at closely. Admittedly, Ishant Sharma is bowling as well as he has for a while but he must now be the inspiration, be the leader of the bowling the way Kohli is of the batting.
As disappointing as they were with the ball, the bowlers rarely stepped up in the field and a player who doesn’t contribute two ways to the team is a burden. The fast bowler has to be the athlete with the strongest throwing arm and India were poorly served on that front as the large grounds cruelly exposed throwing ability. And yet, there are in this team, some of the finest fielders India has thrown up. Building on the tradition of Yuvraj, Kaif and Raina, Kohli, Rohit and Rahane were brilliant with Jadeja and Pandey in a league even higher. But such is the intensity of the modern one-day game that even a couple of slow feet can bring a side down.
The all-rounder query
Sadly too for India, the bowlers don’t bat and the batsmen don’t bowl. And so Dhoni had to play Gurkeerat Mann for Ashwin which cannot happen again. But he was left with little choice. None of the five specialist batsmen picked, Rohit, Dhawan, Kohli, Rahane and Pandey could contribute with the ball and none of the fast bowlers picked, Ishant, Yadav, Sran, Bumrah and now sadly, Bhuvaneshwar is getting into that list, generate any confidence with the bat. So, Rishi Dhawan had to be picked but because Dhoni wasn’t confident of getting ten overs from him, he needed a sixth option. Only Gurkeerat provided that though his bowling, at this stage and in these conditions, wasn’t much of an option anyway.
The balance, or rather the lack of it, also required the batsman to bat a little conservatively. Whether or not the landmark of a century was a distraction is for another day, but the primary consideration was to have a batsman at the end because there weren’t too many riches from number six downwards. That in itself is an indictment of Jadeja the batsman who, by now, should have been offering the number six option.
Admittedly, Dhoni was defensive, but I suspect he was at all times, confronted by limited options. Maybe earlier scars have pushed him towards playing that way but defensive one day cricket, and he knows that better than anyone else, is inherently a weak approach. It didn’t help that Dhoni the batsman is battling the demons that time presents even to the most resolute.
I suspect he will be a different player in Indian conditions where he plays most of his cricket for the next few months but even in apparent decline, his attitude with the bat was admirable. And it is nice to see that his keeping, especially at the stumps, has lost nothing to age.
If India’s selectors have to use learnings from here to look for tomorrow, the message is clear. Find the right candidates for numbers 6,7,8,9 and force numbers 1-5 to provide 5-6 overs in every match because India’s armoury was a bit scanty in Australia.