Tinkering troubles for the Indian cricket team ahead of the World Cup

Virat Kohli after India’s loss to Australia in Mohali. The Indian skipper struggled without the services of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Photo: Reuters
Now wait a second. This is not the end. It’s not even the beginning yet. Even as a flaccid, atypically wimpish performance on an overcast Delhi evening exposed their irrefutable flaws, the sobering reality is that India will still head into the World Cup as one of the favourites. 

That’s an odd thing to say for a team that just meekly conceded three straight games to a timid Australian side that presently possesses one of the worst win-loss ratios in ODI cricket. But this series was to be used as an experiment, a prospective minor bump along the road that leads to the ultimate prize. On that front at least, India tried achieving whatever they could, changing players the way skilled, ancient Chinese magicians once swapped face masks. 

Only, every game, every series in the past two years for the Indian team has been just that: an exercise in player examination, a quest for some utopian combination that, after deep introspection, just may not exist. Rahul for Rayudu. Rayudu for Rahul. Jadeja for Chahal. Chahal for Jadeja. Pant as pure batsman. Pant as wicket-keeper batsman. Dhoni rested. Dhoni playing. Suitcases meant to carry ample valuables have had fewer lock combinations and vacationers have seldom complained. 

Australia on home turf, coming after resounding victories in Australia and New Zealand, should have ideally been a walkover. After the first two games, in fact, it looked just that. A bit of Virat Kohli genius here, a bit of Jasprit Bumrah x-factor there. Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s composure in one game, Vijay Shankar’s nerve in the other. An orchestra playing in calibrated precision, with the audience gaping in appreciation and then applauding. 

Two convincing wins and the tide suddenly turned. Dhoni, the de facto principal conductor, was given time off, presumably to play with his dogs and narrate tales to his daughter about how he thinks this team has the potential to become a clueless, nervous wreck once he retires, leaving Kohli in an isolated mess that he and he alone still isn’t quite accomplished to conquer. A 2-1 quickly became two a piece, before a dismal surrender in the Kotla decider left the alarm bells well and truly ringing. Speaking after the loss in the fourth game in Mohali, former captain Bishan Singh Bedi said that “half captain” Dhoni was indispensable. “You need him everywhere: behind the stumps, in the field, with the bat. Why rest him when the series is still alive?” 

After months of wholesale testing, India still does not have a number four. It seemed like Ambati Rayudu had sealed that spot with match-winning contributions in New Zealand, but his struggles against Australia have once again raised questions about his ponderous beginnings at the crease, and moreover, his infuriating lack of consistency. Manish Pandey was once a candidate for the role, but is now just a fading memory. Dinesh Karthik enjoyed success in that position, but strangely enough is no longer a part of the selectors’ plans. Sanjay Manjrekar was perhaps right when he said that “whoever gets picked in the end, the middle-order will be India’s Achilles heel in the World Cup”. 

Kedar Jadhav walks back to the pavillion during the decider in Delhi. Photo: Reuters

The problem seems all the more ominous when seen in the light of India’s clear over-dependence on its top three. When no one from the Rohit Sharma-Shikhar Dhawan-Virat Kohli triumvirate fires, India mostly seem out of their depth — particularly when batting first — stumbling and stuttering in the middle, lacking any initiative or catalytic verve. Even the introduction of the naturally belligerent Rishabh Pant in the last three games couldn’t alter that. As for the 21-year-old’s chances of making the World Cup squad, Pant’s goose looks cooked. Contrary to initial perception, he still isn’t quite fully ready for the 50-over format — whether with bat or gloves. 

At which point it is perhaps prudent to highlight the importance of Kohli. We know it’s been said before, but we need to say it again — loud and clear, shout it from rooftops if need be. Kohli is the kind of ethereal athlete who can not only help Elon Musk discover life on Mars, but also test out its gravitational parameters by stroking hundreds in the red dirt. But when playing for India, he needs assistance. In Ranchi, for instance, we saw the return of a dreaded ’90s trope: one Indian up against 11 Australians. When Kohli was in the middle, masterfully carving out another one-day international hundred, all seemed well with the world. The moment he left, India were as powerless in preventing defeat as an empty chocolate bar wrapper would be against a gust of wind.

The bowling, too, has suffered because of the tinkering. For more than a year, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal were a part of almost every limited-overs game for India. Their involvement was so frequent that you feared a burnout was imminent. Moreover, there was a genuine concern that batsmen would figure them out, lay into their wrist spin and cause irreparable damage to their confidence. Yadav has miraculously managed to preserve the novelty and self-belief that make his art such a seducing one, but Chahal’s leg-spin has suffered in recent months. 

The thing about Kohli is that he picks players as impulsively as he dispenses with them. Chahal won Kohli matches in South Africa and Australia, but ever since Glen Maxwell eviscerated him in the second T20 in Bengaluru, the Indian captain has seemed reluctant to play him. Ravindra Jadeja has filled in admirably, and with the batting and fielding qualities that he brings to the team, Chahal’s game time might just about get severely limited. 

In the seam department, there is similar ambiguity over who will play the role of the fourth pacer behind Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami. Umesh Yadav seems to have blown his chances after his erratic showing in the T20 series. Which leaves only Siddarth Kaul, who has played so little that you’re unsure of what to make of him.

Experimentation is fine as long as it is done in a time-bound manner, whereby you build on the positives and discard the negatives. Experimentation achieves little when a bunch of players is haphazardly thrown in, each game seemingly an audition for a tournament far in the future. India has been doing exactly that for the last few years, taking its own success for granted and trying to use the availability of “excess talent” as an overt justification for its selection failings. 

Too many options is sometimes not a good problem to have; it’s just a problem. And what that mostly ensures is that you head into the tournament of your life low on confidence, weighed down by a depleted morale. India must pick themselves up.

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