Indian cricket team’s performance Down Under has been under the scanner from the very first ODI that they lost. Many experts and others have analysed and given their opinions on why the team’s performance has been pathetic. Unfortunately most experts and analysts tend to be stereo typed and fail to call a spade a spade; therefore their analysis lack objectivity and honesty. The first question is did the selectors chose the best team to tour Australia? I am afraid the answer has to be in the negative. Team selection has to be based on the conditions expected in the series, players in form, perceived weaknesses of the opposition and last but not the least a will to try some new talent that can be groomed for the future. The last also acts as a surprise element in a captain’s game plan.
When it comes to conditions a genuine leg spinner who can flight the ball is invariably an asset in Australian conditions but selectors left out Amit Mishra for reasons best known to them. Instead they added two similar orthodox left arm spinners in Ravinder Jadeja and Axar Patel. Effectively the 15 man squad was reduced to 14 since Jadeja was always going to be the first choice and therefore Axar would never find a place in the playing eleven. It is also a known fact that leg spinners often do well against Australian batsmen in Australia. Next when it comes to form factor one really wonders why Shikhar Dhawan has to be persisted with despite a rather long poor run with the bat. His strike rate and inability to rotate strike in the first ten overs invariably puts the onus of scoring quick runs on the batsmen at the other end. It also helps the opposition to keep things under control and build up pressure. It does appear that the Captain’s mindset seems to be that if Rohit Sharma is firing at the other end, Shikhar can take his time. This may be acceptable as an exception but when it becomes a rule it impacts the team’s performance adversely as is obvious from the first three ODI’s played in this series. Shikhar’s strike rate remains less than 50 till he reaches a score of 20 and the best he has achieved is 72 towards the end of his innings in the third ODI where he made 72 runs. That is poor by any standards for an opener on good batting tracks and no wonder that despite heroics from Rohit, Rahane and Virat Kohli in the first three matches India failed to cross the 310 mark. This is where the selectors erred in not selecting a more dashing opener or paving the way for Rahane to open and making a place secure for a batsman like Manish Pande in the middle order.
Another serious omission was the non-selection of Ashish Nehra for the one day series. He is perhaps the best left arm bowler available as on date and more often than not he is very effective in the death overs, something the current four fast bowlers in the squad lack in totality. Also if he can play in T20 internationals with an eye on the next world Cup, there appears to be no reason to doubt his prowess for ODIs. Selection of Barinder Saran or even Bhuvneshawar Kumar ahead of Nehra is baffling to say the least. The selectors did pick two debutant all rounders in Rishi Dhawan and Gurkeerat Mann but the captain failed to use them as a surprise factor in the first two ODIs. By the time they were included in the playing eleven by a reluctant captain, India was already down and reeling with two successive defeats. Selection of Gurkeerat Mann as a spinning all rounder is baffling since Jadeja, Ashvin and Axar are all in the same category. If Gurkeerat was chosen on merit of his batting alone then in that case it is obvious that he was never going to make the final eleven at number 5 or 6 in this line up. It does appear that the selectors just concentrated on selecting a group of 15 players without going into the details of suitability of the players in each facet of the game to ensure a balanced playing eleven. After Rahane at number four, rest of the batting from number five to eleven is all wobbly to say the least.
Next is the issue of Captaincy. Dhoni has never been known for his attacking mindset. He is primarily a defensive Captain who lets the game drift often and hopes for a change in fortune. His handling of Jadeja in the third ODI was a prime example of lack of attacking instincts as were his field placings in certain phases of the matches played so far. Above all it is no secret that he is past his prime in all three aspects of the game – captaincy, batting and wicket keeping, his occasional brilliance notwithstanding. All experts who feel Dhoni should be batting at number four need to have their head examined. Given his lack of technique and obvious slowdown of senses with age he will invariably flop at that level. His lamenting on various issues in post match briefings too left a lot to be desired as far as motivating a team or individual players is concerned. Frankly he is not up to the task anymore. The team requires a more energetic and vibrant leader like Virat Kohli apart from a new wicket keeper who can be a hundred percent team man behind the stumps like Sanju Samson or Naman Ojha or even Robin Uthappa. Robin in particular is a hard hitting batsman of no mean calibre and will serve the team well at number 6 or 7. It is obvious that in their fixation for Dhoni the selectors have missed a trick here that is costing the team dear. It also shows lack of foresight to look at the future before it becomes too late.
There are two more areas that are contributing to the failure of the team. First is the inability of the bowlers to bowl a defensive line and length consistently once it becomes obvious that the pitch is offering no assistance. All bowlers are guilty of this lapse as in none of the matches could they put the Australian batting under any pressure. This is obvious from the fact that despite being asked to chase over three hundred runs the required run rate for Australia hardly ever crossed the seven run mark. The highest it reached was 7.4 in the third ODI. Most teams do have a strategy to choke runs if wickets are not falling but the Indian team seems to be lacking the same. This is mainly due to indiscipline in bowling department and the obvious limitations in Dhoni’s tactical approach to the game on the field. The other glaring shortcoming is the lack of power hitting by the middle order towards the end of the innings. In the first three games there were hardly any overs in which more than 15 runs were scored by the team. This makes a telling difference on the final score achieved and on good batting tracks the team will always be short of those 20-25 crucial runs in the end.
The management of cricketing affairs in India need to be more professional in their approach and thinking. They must always act on the principle of ‘Game is larger than any individual’. This means if some player does not merit selection at any given time the management must have the courage to tell him accordingly and move on. Past reputations or performances cannot guarantee a place in the team or give the desired results. Players too must understand the same and ideally should come forward to say that may be it is time to make place for someone more deserving. That may be a good way of giving back to the game that has given them so much. Chasing records like playing one’s 200th test match or scoring that elusive 100th hundred in international cricket or captaining the side for one more World Cup can only be counterproductive for the game and team’s performance. In today’s competitive and fierce playing environment, irrespective of the reputation or stature, there is no place for players to be playing the game occasionally under the pretext of reducing their work load. If the body does not allow or refuses to take the hectic work load then it is better to call it a day instead of putting reputational limitations on selectors and the team as a whole.
PS: As I finish writing this article, Shikhar Dhawan has once again produced one of his infrequent better performances in the fourth ODI by scoring a century at a strike rate of 111. Will this once again cement his place in the team for next few tournaments? Personally I am still not convinced since the typical left hander’s fluency is still missing – but then what matters is what the selectors think. Dhoni has once again faltered after promoting himself to number four in absence of injured Rahane. That famed finishing touch to an innings is nowhere in sight despite coming in at a very favourable time when the team was sitting pretty at 277 for two wickets in less than 37 overs while chasing a target of 349. Finally the absence of a confident hard hitter at number 6, 7 or 8 who could give a quick fire 20 -25 runs cost India the match that they should have won hands down after all the hard work was done by the first three batsmen. Is it any surprise then that in all the four games those elusive 20-25 runs made all the difference?