India face 'best XI' quandary
MS Dhoni will persist with Ravindra Jadeja as the allrounder, and Irfan Pathan will play as a specialist bowler in India's near do-or-die match against Australia on Sunday. Dhoni said he was impressed with Irfan's bowling, but that playing him at No. 7 will leave the batting thin. When asked if India will play a specialist batsman at No. 7 as, seemingly, the batting was their main concern, Dhoni said he didn't want to lose out on Jadeja's spin bowling.
It is an interesting persistence. Jadeja is a likable player, no doubt. He fields superbly in the circle, has a rocket arm from the deep, and squeezes every last drop out of his batting and bowling talent. You want to make space for such players in your side, but how long do you persist, and do you respect conditions? The fact remains that Jadeja is neither as good a timer of the ball as Irfan nor as good a bowler in Australian conditions with two new balls being used.
This thought process points to a limited side that happens to be out of form too. In other words, Dhoni is not confident that his four specialist bowlers and Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma and Virender Sehwag can bowl 50 overs among them. Nor does he trust his six best batsmen followed by Irfan and R Ashwin to bat out - and bat out convincingly - 50 overs. You have to empathise with Dhoni here: the batting is struggling, and you will never bet your well-earned money on India's bowlers, bar two, completing their quota.
One of those two bowlers, Zaheer Khan, is out with a calf injury, which is the reason Irfan was tried out in the first place. The second, Praveen Kumar, has played only two ODIs in this series despite being fit. Given Vinay Kumar's hamstring injury, Praveen is likely to return, but Dhoni made it clear he wasn't the first choice as his pace and length had fallen away following a rib injury that kept him out of the Test series.
"He is swinging the ball," Dhoni agreed, but added, "after he has come back from injury, he has dropped down in pace a bit. From a bowler who was bowling just over 130, the last game that he played, he bowled close to 125 and below that. And he was bowling a fraction short. At that pace if you are a fraction short, then players have more opportunity to cash in."
Dhoni said that with the injuries forcing him to rotate players, there was no need to employ an extra rotation policy. When India had won two matches in a row and tied the third, Dhoni had spoken of how the rotation policy will have helped "by the time" India make it to the finals. "By the time" has become a big "if" now. And so, he suggested he would go back to playing the best XI, meaning Rohit might miss out again.
It was a bold move to back the youngsters, to give them more exposure, or even look for a better fielding unit. The motive behind the move cannot be questioned in a vacuum. The communication can be, but that's a different matter now. At the end of the day, the youngsters haven't taken those opportunities. Rohit has all but played himself out, Raina has only been marginally better. Dhoni is not giving up on them any time soon, though.
"Not disappointed," he said, "because every time any individual goes on to the field he wants to perform. And at times you can't perform. It has happened to each and every one who has played international cricket. It's just that most of our batsmen haven't done consistently well in the series, so we are feeling the pressure.
"Doesn't matter who you are or where you are batting, if you think of the first six batsmen as a unit. Out of first six, if three or four of them are performing, it doesn't matter who is the person who is not performing. Because what happens is, as a team you do well. You can give those extra few games to the individual who has not done well.
"But when you are going through a phase where you are struggling a bit, then it becomes difficult to give that particular individual those extra two games or three games, which may make him turn things around. You have to go by the demands of the game, and right now we are not in a very good situation. We are in a do-or-die situation, and the best XI will feature based on fitness and availability."
What the best XI is, is another matter altogether. There are various factors to be considered: slow fielders, injuries, bowlers who can't be trusted to bowl ten overs every day, out-of-form batsmen. You wouldn't want to be in Dhoni's shoes right now.
Edited by Nikita Bastian
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo