England need disruptive strategy to counter spin
India have won two ODIs impressively and comprehensively - two more than they did on their last two tours outside Asia - but MS Dhoni has pointed out on both occasions that he wants more from his bowlers. There was nothing in the South African and New Zealand pitches for Dhoni's spinners, which is a stark difference in the series so far, but it hasn't missed Dhoni's attention that England have been 53 for 0 after 10 overs and 75 for 0 after 17 in the two ODIs played so far.
It shouldn't miss England's attention either. They have thrown away two really good starts, kind of starts big hitters such as Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler should thrive on. It would not be unfair to say, though, that they haven't as much thrown them away as they have been snatched away from them. Both the slides featured a chokehold from the spinners, which resulted in silly shots. Not hitting a boundary between the 18th and the 34th over is damning, but more worrisome is the 40 dot balls between boundaries. It is a skill to work the spinners around into the gaps, but so far apart from Ian Bell no England batsman has suggested he can.
It is clear England are struggling against spin, and that can play tricks with your mind even when the ball is not turning. India will keep surrounding their batsmen with spinners: they have two full-time spinners, a pretty handy part-timer and at least one more to roll his arm over. They will keep rushing through their overs, time will keep running out even before England realise, and India will be hard to beat. Dhoni is as good as any with this kind of captaincy.
"We didn't play the spin very well," Alastair Cook said after Trent Bridge. "Obviously, we didn't in Cardiff either. But they bowled well, and did turn it. Ashwin and Jadeja are very good at one-day cricket spin bowling. We had a few soft dismissals, and a few good balls as well. Every time you tried to build a partnership, you lost wickets, and that obviously keeps holding you back if you want to play aggressively. I think we [just] need to start playing better. I don't think it's so much the strategy of it. There are some good players there, who are not showing it."
England might have good batsmen, but they will struggle against Dhoni and India as long as they don't find batsmen who can milk the spinners for 80-90 runs for 20 overs without losing more than two wickets. It involves use of the feet and wrists to manoeuvre the ball either side of that short straight midwicket and cover. You can't develop that skill overnight. England might need a quick fix. Cook might be right that overall strategy is not at fault, but they need an out-of-the-box plan that veers India from these set pieces. One of those plans could be the early Powerplay.
Ever since it was introduced, the Powerplay has seldom been used before it becomes mandatory. Teams have found out it interferes with the flow of their innings, and they want it to arrive just before they are about to tee off in the last 10 overs. It is also like playing with fire; you can lose wickets while feeling obliged to go for runs in the Powerplay, which can leave you in rebuilding phase once it ends. Whereas if you take it in the 36th over, as is compulsory if not called for earlier, you have only 10 overs to go. You don't need to rebuild during that phase. This fear of losing wickets has kept teams from maximising the possibilities: around 36th over, you are going to begin hitting out at any rate, why not get yourself five more overs of field restrictions somewhere in the middle?
The risk factor, however, often tips the scales in favour of convention. In England's case here, though, there is a larger tactical use of the Powerplay. Dhoni likes to get rid of a few quick overs from Suresh Raina somewhere between the 15th and 20th over. It is also the time the England batsman are just coming to terms with spin. If they ask for the Powerplay then, England are basically asking Dhoni if he wants to risk continuing with Raina or bring back his quicks. It will not only delay the introduction of spin at both ends, but will also force Dhoni to use his lesser spinners in overs he doesn't want to. It also means a longer early spell for at least one of India's quicks, assuming Dhoni trusts R Ashwin to continue bowling into a Powerplay.
South Africa did something similar in the 30th over in Johannesburg late last year when they forced Dhoni to split Jadeja and Raina, and had Mohit Sharma and Mohammed Shami coming back earlier than they would have wanted. They eventually got 34 for 2 from the Powerplay, but they had upset India's plans and had set themselves up for a prolonged slog in the end. South Africa's call came more from supreme confidence in their own game rather than fear of spin, but even here an early call for the Powerplay will set up a new and interesting set-piece.
When asked after Trent Bridge if he had given any thought to calling for an early Powerplay, Cook didn't say much, except that yes it had been a thought, but India had the fields up anyway. That's different, though. With that field up, India have the option of sitting back if one boundary is struck. Not in a Powerplay. Cook ended his answer with, "Possibly." It might well be a possibility, if it happens it should bring a new dimension to the game, but for that possibility to arrive Cook and Alex Hales will have to put together a good opening partnership third time in a row.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo