India need recalibration and new resources
"This is the same team as the World Cup," Rohit Sharma insisted on Saturday. "We were outplayed," MS Dhoni conceded on Sunday. That was that. India had lost a series to Bangladesh, their first such defeat. This could have been a glorious underdog story had India actually been top dogs in this contest. A list of reasons was offered for India's performance: lack of partnerships, limited lower-order resources, Mustafizur Rahman. The finger-pointing, though, didn't quite stop the head-scratching. You can't help it when a full-strength side makes you wonder if it really is at full strength.
Yet it was only a few months ago that they had appeared flawless in the World Cup. There were five hundreds from four top-order batsmen. The bowlers gobbled 77 of 80 wickets available to them. Somewhere in the Indian dressing room the coach's little black book was running out of boxes to check. The pressure of opening against Pakistan deflected. The threat of an all-round South Africa crushed. Zimbabwe, West Indies and Ireland brushed aside. This India were solving second-degree differential equations.
You have to give credit to India for having raised their game after a winless tour to Australia, but you could sense the foundation of that success was so thin it could not be sustained. There was great mental strength in how they competed under pressure, but you knew one-day cricket was leaving them behind and they would have some catching up to do. And as it happens after a cycle ends at World Cup, the game changed some more.
India learnt that first hand in their first game back, as Shakib Al Hasan and Sabbir Rahman responded to a couple of quick wickets with a counterattack. Bangladesh flew to 307. Over in Durham, Jonny Bairstow and Sam Billings stared at a scoreline of 45 for 5, and flipped it off. England won an invigorating series 3-2. AB de Villiers and Glenn Maxwell play as if the bowler in front of them doesn't matter and the stumps behind them don't exist. One-day batting works differently now, especially in the middle order. The moment pressure rears its head, bam. Like whack-a-mole.
India and Dhoni prefer to sit on their hands until a specific time in the innings - generally the final 10 overs, when there are fewer chances of being bundled out. So never mind the scoring rate bottling up, the bowlers settling in, and wickets tumbling. This template works best when India can sustain momentum through their innings. A good start up top, consolidation in the middle and chaos at the end. Like in the final ODI. When they are asked to take a detour from the template, they lose their way. They haven't raised their game when the less-fancied Bangladesh have excelled at it. There is a feeling of stagnation.
It is easier to not stagnate when there is a robust bench that can help push new ideas. The big threat is, the current personnel might have taken the team as far as they can without reinforcements to back them up. Yet the only batsman tried from outside the main group over a long time has been Ambati Rayudu, whom Dhoni didn't trust to take a single under pressure in a T20 international last year.
Even in the available XI, the batting order is an issue. The consensus is that Rohit Sharma has claimed the right to be opener. Scoring two ODI double-hundreds gives him an iron-clad bargaining chip. That the man can do amazing things has never been questioned, but we have a middle-order batsman opening, and an opener struggling - as pointed out by Dhoni - in the middle. Ajinkya Rahane has been told to remodel himself to suit the middle order or wait. It would seem no one wants to make the unpopular choice of asking Rohit to make a sacrifice. We all know what happened when Greg Chappell made a similar demand of Sachin Tendulkar.
If such minor tweaks were the major problem, things might be fine, but India's batting assembly line has attracted a few gremlins. Suresh Raina still hasn't blossomed into a full-fledged match-winner. He often needs someone else guiding him from the other end. Rayudu doesn't fit the definition of first-choice because Rahane is more skilled. The situation is best described by the fact that the back-up batting resources are thinner than the back-up fast bowling resources.
About now was the time the IPL, eight years into its existence, was supposed to throw up better and bolder players. Those well sheltered from the influences of the orthodox coaching manual and perfectly suited to excite. Every year that party swings by, brainwashes a few losses away, generates lots of publicity - all kinds of it - and doesn't particularly throw up too many options for national reckoning.
So India have to make do with that rickety lower order. Dhoni has had to contend with it for months and admitted it has affected his game. So much that he leapfrogged to No. 4 against Bangladesh to set the game up, as opposed to worrying about damage control. Over the last two years, batting at No. 6 he has managed a strike rate over 115 only on five occasions. Because India, over the last two years, have been four down for less than 150 a total of 26 times. Predictably, they have lost 17 of those games.
Given such a situation, the No. 7 position needs to fetch a few more than the average 16 runs it does. Ravindra Jadeja remains the first choice for that spot because of his bowling. Over the last 12 months, though, he has wheeled away through 165.3 overs for 24 wickets at an average of 38.04. He doesn't seem the same bowler since his shoulder injury. The big bats, small grounds and ever-shrinking middle overs don't help.
It was not so long ago that India were pioneers in the one-day game. They dispelled fears involved in chasing big totals, showed that having a target in front of you feeds your calculations as opposed to disrupting them. Their use of spin early in the game to upset the opposition batsmen's rhythm has become a bit of a template. Leg slips and silly mid-ons had been default settings in Indian cricket well before Brendon McCullum turned them into a hashtag. Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Dhoni tended to be with the game if not ahead of it.
It is not all doom. England have shown that. India themselves turned it around twice in the last two years, during the Champions Trophy and during the World Cup. But there is no concentrated period of really important matches in sight, where you have added motivation to beat the odds. And beat the odds is what India did in the Champions Trophy and the World Cup. A more sustained recalibration is needed now. And perhaps better resources. This might be Dhoni's last challenge.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo