India need to rethink strategy against tail
India began and ended the year similarly. At Newlands, it was Mark Boucher and an injured Jacques Kallis who were allowed to get away when India were on top. At the MCG, it was the Australian lower order. At Newlands the India batsmen were in better form, and came out with a draw when they could have won. At the MCG the batsmen struggled, and India lost when they could have won.
At the heart of both those disappointments was how India spread the field as soon as they saw the lower order. Not a gradual phasing out of attack, no. Not reacting to a boundary or two. MS Dhoni has been going on the defensive as soon as the lower-order players come out to bat. At Newlands, Kallis, batting at No. 5 and battling the pain of a side strain, walked out to a long-on in place, and there was a deep point the moment he reverse-swept a four. On the first day in Melbourne, Brad Haddin came out to face a hat-trick ball at 5 for 205. That soon become 6 for 214, when Ed Cowan was dismissed, but in the next over Dhoni had long-on, deep midwicket and fine leg for Haddin.
Dhoni's defence for the welcome given to Haddin says all you need to know. "You have to see who was bowling," he said [it was R Ashwin who was bowling]. "Haddin is a good player of spin. We were bowling first, which meant there were no rough patches to play with. It could have been easy pickings. What we wanted to do was see if he is good enough and takes a single every delivery. [In that case] we look to put pressure on the other batsmen or from the other end from which the fast bowlers were bowling. It's a strategy that goes your way or doesn't go your way. You have to back yourself."
But Ashwin had been looking to get wickets when it was 3 for 205, and Michael Clarke and Cowan were at the crease. Why suddenly stop trying to get one of the batsmen out? Ashwin was not easy pickings for Clarke, how did he suddenly become easy pickings for Haddin? The result is no surprise. Australia's last four wickets added a total of 211 runs over the two innings. India's managed 132, 88 of those coming in the second innings when the match was already lost and the tail could swing the bat without any pressure.
This is - at least it seemed to be for the first three days - a series between evenly matched sides. Runs scored by lower orders could decide the outcome. The last two series that India have won against Australia both featured contributions from the lower order. In 2008-09, it was Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh's 80-run partnership that helped India draw the first Test, which proved to be a massive turning point in the series. In 2010-11, Ishant Sharma and Pragyan Ojha hung around with VVS Laxman to win India the Mohali Test. It is no coincidence that when the Australian lower order beats India's by 79 runs, India wind up losing the Test by 122.
At the end of the game, Dhoni said his side needed to come up with a "formula" to get tailenders out. To lose the existing formula might be a start. The current formula might have worked for Dhoni on slower tracks, on smaller fields where singles are easy to defend, but such passivity against the tail is bound to hurt you at some time.
Ian Chappell said the captain, more than the bowlers, had to be blamed for this. There is merit to what Chappell says. The same bowlers who have been trying to get a wicket every ball are now expected to change their game-plan to restricting boundaries for one batsman and then desperately trying to take a wicket with the last one or two deliveries of the over. Dhoni is a captain who usually knows what moments to seize; in Melbourne he looked two of them in the eye and let them pass.
On the other hand, Clarke, fresher to the job, was a little more intuitive when it came to the Indian tail. After the match he defended Dhoni's tactics, and said that he would have done the same; but actually he did not. He did not fight his own team's momentum, and ran through the Indian Nos. 7, 8 and 9. Dhoni, unlike Haddin, was attacked in the first innings. It was only when Ashwin got into a partnership with the No. 11 that the fields went back, and that too after the partnership had begun developing.
Clarke's empathising with Dhoni says a lot about modern cricket: fearless tails, heavy bats and thick edges put the fear of a counterattack in the fielding captain's mind. "I did the same for Ashwin in the first innings," Clarke said. "I did the same for Dhoni on the fourth day [after Dhoni had hit a six and a couple] because the runs from the tail are important for any team, especially when the pitch is a bit bowler-friendly. As a team, every single run you get is crucial. I can see why Dhoni did it. Probably for the same reasons I did it; because you want to protect every single run."
Be that as it may, Dhoni realises the runs scored by the Australian lower order hurt India. He knows if he had knocked over the tail quickly India could have been chasing something around 230, and not 292. But he fears that had he tried to run through the tail, one or more of the batsmen could have taken advantage of close fields and scored more than they eventually did. Having put it down as one of the reasons for the defeat, Dhoni will at least revisit the strategy against lower orders. We all know it can do with a rethink.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo