As India won nine consecutive bilateral ODI series since 2016, the stopping point of any discussion was always a trip to England. No, not the one next summer, but this one, with three ODIs a year before the 2019 World Cup which would ascertain India's preparation.
For the uninitiated, England have registered a come-from-behind 2-1 win, while India have been left pondering which of their exposed problems is most pressing. From over-dependency on the top-order, to a gaping hole in the middle order, to a lack of properly influential sixth bowling option, to a singular all-rounder option, to a long tail that doesn’t wag, to second-choice pacers who have been shown up, to an over-exposed spin attack, and to the slightly worrisome form of MS Dhoni, it is a long list.
The bigger problem, however, is that they have all come up for consideration on the basis of defeats in the last two matches at Lord’s and Leeds in the span of three days.
From T20Is to ODIs, a big change comes over the Indian team’s face, as these gaps are papered over in the shorter white-ball format. Perhaps it was evident in the manner the team management went about changing things, or at least trying to, in the build-up to this game.
There were three changes made ahead of a series’' finale – fit-again Bhuvneshwar Kumar: check. He has been a vital new ball and death bowler for India, and lengthens the batting line-up at number eight as well. Yet, the other two changes were perplexing. Shardul Thakur coming in for Siddarth Kaul didn’t make much sense as India went for a totally new-look white ball pairing. And the big one, KL Rahul dropped after two outings as the no. 4 experimentation continued with Dinesh Karthik getting a game.
At the toss, Virat Kohli had described that last change as 'tactical'. “I think they were necessary changes. We thought Dinesh did well, but he couldn't convert his start, so I don't regret the batting order changes. Shardul was meant to get some exposure, and Bhuvi needed to make a comeback. When the changes don't come off, they look unnecessary so it must be taken in our stride,” he explained after the eight-wicket spanking.
It begs for some consideration. Since the start of this tour in Ireland, Kohli has asked for patience from Karthik, in that he could only considered as a like-for-like replacement. It is a quandary for Dhoni cannot be dropped at this juncture, while KL Rahul deserved first go on the merit of his rich form alone. The complication arises when you hear what BBC Test Match Special commentary has to say. “We asked Rahul this morning why he wasn’t playing,” said Charles Dagnall on air during the game. "I don’t know," he replied.
A pattern is starting to emerge here. When Shardul Thakur was asked later why he was only playing one-off games every few months, the answer was quite similar."I don’t know. The team management hasn’t explained yet." Then, he talked about difficult it is to enter into any contest for just one fixture. For any cricketer, it is as much about mental preparation as physical.
"In South Africa also, I played only one game which was the last one. India had won the series so it was inconsequential again. This was a series finale, so I was a bit nervous, as I wanted to do well for the team. But it is not easy playing one-off game in every series," said Thakur.
Simply put, this is a microcosm of India's problem. There is plain mismatch in selection policies and strategic nous, and it is starting to show. Let us consider the aforementioned points one by one for apt rebuttal.
The top-order dependency is valid because Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli look very good when the runs flow. When they don’t, it looks very bad.
India have now used nine different options at no.4 since the last time they played England in a bilateral ODI series in January 2017, and yet this list is only becoming longer with each passing game.
Suresh Raina wasn’t the first-choice pick in this squad. Yet, it makes for some wonderment how Ambati Rayudu, who was ruled out over fitness issues, would have fit in here.
Hardik Pandya has struggled to make an impression with the ball in his first spells. Throughout this tour, his first few overs have been very poor, as he has struggled to adapt to the proper length. He hasn't had a breakthrough with the bat. There is no alternative option, however.
Kumar bats at no.8, when fit. For all their demerits in taking wickets in white-ball cricket, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja at least elongated the batting order until no.9. This is a new headache, one the Indian team management could have done without.
Kuldeep Yadav, and Yuzvendra Chahal obviously, were outplayed in the last two ODIs. After his failures in the T20s and at Nottingham, Joe Root turned a corner mentally against Kuldeep and since then England didn’t give India a sniff. While he is a shoe-in for the Test series, former spinner Graeme Swann wonders if he has 'bowled too much too soon' on this tour.
The less said about Dhoni right now, the better, for there is no time left to have a debate over his availability for the World Cup or indeed attempting to find a replacement.
By words or action, there wasn’t a statement coming from the Indian camp in these last two ODIs and the lasting image will be of Root dropping his bat, almost a microphone drop given the situation. It was an indicator that all talk must stop now. It meant that India ought to return to the drawing boards in hushed silence as they have lost bragging rights to the world’s number one ODI side.
There is a lot to do, and only ten months to the World Cup.
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