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January 10, 2013
One of India's major problems in the just-concluded ODI series against Pakistan was the repeated top-order collapses against some high-quality bowling from Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan. Even Virat Kohli, who has had as purple a patch in ODIs as anyone has ever had, faltered. Virender Sehwag is already a casualty, and his limited-overs career is at a crossroads, if not an end. Gautam Gambhir's weakness against the moving ball was in the limelight once again, prompting murmurs over his place in the side as well.
India have also only had two 50-run opening stands in 19 ODIs over the past 12 months, something they are trying to fix by bringing in Ajinkya Rahane, who is set for an extended run after an eternity carrying drinks.
"The stats suggest that for quite some time we have not got off to a very good," MS Dhoni said ahead of the first ODI against England in Rajkot. "Yes, the openers have been scoring runs on and off, but we have not been able to get a good partnership between them. One of them has been getting out. We are hoping to get good starts in this series. Jinx [Rahane] is the new opener. He has played on and off and done decently well."
Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh were two others who had series to forget against Pakistan but one thing in favour of some of the struggling batsmen is that Rajkot is synonymous with big runs, regularly in the news for the latest colossal score from Ravindra Jadeja or Cheteshwar Pujara.
India's totals in the previous two ODIs in the city, though at the old Madhavrao Scindia Stadium, are 414 for 7 and 387 for 5. Though Friday's match will be played at the swank new ground in the city's outskirts, that too promises to be full of runs. The last limited-overs tournament played here was the Challenger Trophy, where not only were 300-plus scores the norm, those totals were almost chased down on occasions as well.
The flip side of a flat track is the magnifying lens it puts on bowlers. While the batting is brimful of experience, several of the quick bowlers are in the infancy of their international careers. Bhuvneshwar Kumar was outstanding in his debut Twenty20 in Bangalore last month and sparked plenty of excitement, but at his military-medium pace, on tracks with little movement, he could be in for a difficult time. Shami Ahmed has had only one game so far and Ishant Sharma's propensity to leak runs has meant he hasn't been a regular in the ODI side for nearly three years.
One other plus for India is that Dhoni's personal form was exceptional in the Pakistan series, as it has been for much of his ODI career, providing some welcome respite for the under-fire captain. "I never question my ability… Self-belief is something that's very important. Especially in a team sport, it's important that everybody keeps believing in themselves and understands the roles and responsibilities they've got."
It has been a difficult month for Dhoni, with only two days to digest the morale-sapping Test series defeat to England before shifting his focus to the Twenty20s, two days after which cricketing ties with India's bitterest rivals resumed. Now, just three days after Pakistan left as victors, he's back at the start of a new series. And if he thought the England ODIs would be somewhat low-profile, he would have changed his mind after seeing the thousands who turned up outside the team hotel to catch a glimpse of their stars.
There have been suggestions, including from Rahul Dravid, that perhaps the time has come for Dhoni, who has long performed the triple-role of leader, batsman and wicketkeeper, to give up captaincy in at least one of the formats. It's not an idea Dhoni agrees with though, as of now. "We'll have to wait and watch. It's not something that's on my mind before the start of an important series. We can't be thinking about that now."
The last time India lost a live home ODI against England was way back in 2002, when Andrew Flintoff waved his shirt in celebration at the Wankhede Stadium, an act that was famously echoed by Sourav Ganguly at Lord's the next year. The previous two ODI series in India between the two sides have ended in 5-0 drubbings for England. Alastair Cook has rightly termed his team as underdogs going into the series but India have already seen one proud 28-year-old record fall this season, and have plenty to sort if they aren't to lose another.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Siddarth Ravindran
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