January 25, 2013

A few silver linings for India

One new player and one who seems to have reinvented himself have helped redeem a horror season somewhat

Like some middle-distance athletes who sprint out of the blocks and run out of steam rather quickly, England have gone rapidly downhill in a one-day series they were not expected to win. So woeful is their record in India (they have lost 19 out of their last 22 games and scrambled a tie in between) and so understaffed have they been (Anderson, Broad, Swann and Trott all away on different objectives) that having won the first game of this series now seems an accomplishment. Just as teams are often berated for not showing enough respect for Test cricket, England must be asked if they offer the one-day game too little.

If the objective was to learn (though I am not sure it was, with no major one-day tournament scheduled on the subcontinent for a while) there were plenty of lessons. Alastair Cook is their best bet at the top of the order, Steven Finn will lead many England attacks in the years to come, and in Joe Root they have a young player who looks to the world like he belongs. But Ian Bell continues to frustrate; like Rohit Sharma in India, he has unarguable pedigree but maddening inconsistency, and England have to ask whether he is part of the future of their 50-over game. Samit Patel has to play as a batsman only, Jade Dernbach has run out of tricks that were insubstantial to start with, and Tim Bresnan isn't the solid seam-bowling allrounder he is in home conditions. Matt Prior will get a go in most ODI teams save for England; having seen his remarkable progress as a cricketer, it is inconceivable that he cannot earn a place in this side.

For India this series is a reminder that they can win. Losing was becoming a habit, with each form substantially represented, and questions were coming up faster than answers. Fast bowlers were disappearing into a mysterious dark hole, spinners were getting extinct, and batsmen were doing just enough not to be dropped. And while it would be dangerous to treat this as a major revival, some cause for optimism has emerged.

Top of that list is Ravindra Jadeja who, for all his skills, had his fielding and his hair as his most noticeable features. But he did what all good players must do. He went back to domestic cricket and batted and bowled long hours. He became his team's lead spinner and batted at No. 4. And while the hopelessly one-sided tracks in Rajkot delivered him a rich bounty of runs, it also forced him to bowl long spells. As a result, Jadeja today is a significantly better bowler than in the past. Maybe he has a greater understanding of what he can (and can't yet) do, and that is reflected in the greater accuracy he brings. Since his return in the second game against Pakistan, he has 3 for 41 and 13, 1 for 19 and 27, 0 for 46 and 7, 2 for 12 and 61 not out, 3 for 19, and 3 for 39 and 21 not out. That is 129 runs (at 43) and 12 wickets, and you don't ask for more from an allrounder.

His captain is enjoying this renaissance, especially since batsmen were starting to get the better of his lead part-timer, Yuvraj Singh. Dhoni can now go in with five bowlers, a luxury he has rarely been allowed. And he has a fielder who is on par with Suresh Raina and Virat Kohli. In Indian conditions, Jadeja now looks ready to be the allrounder the team needed. But within that statement lies both a celebration and a word of caution. India have always looked a reasonably well-balanced team in subcontinental conditions and severely imbalanced overseas. For India to be a force at the Champions Trophy this June in England and all the way through to 2015, Jadeja must deliver similar performances in away conditions. That is the next challenge.

India's second big plus was the arrival of Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Like with so many his age, he seems possessed of abundant energy, and while he swings the ball prodigiously, he does so at a reasonable pace. Comparisons with Praveen Kumar are inevitable but Bhuvneshwar seems a better athlete and, critically, at least 5kph quicker. Dhoni has often bowled him out early in an innings and it is encouraging to see that his tenth over (even when on the trot) is not significantly less in intensity than his first or second. Maybe it comes out of bowling long spells for Uttar Pradesh on all kinds of wickets, and indeed, that is going to be his next challenge. When the ball is new and moving at his command, he seems very impressive but India would like to see him bowl in Test cricket too, and that means lots of bowling on hot afternoons with an old ball.

One advantage for him could well be that batsmen don't play swing bowling too well these days. Vernon Philander and Mitchell Starc have made very impressive entries into international cricket by swinging the ball, and while they propel it quicker than Bhuvneshwar does, they do underline the point that swing bowling in an era of stand-and-deliver batting is a potent weapon.

In bowler-friendly conditions on a cold, winter day in Mohali, India asked Rohit Sharma to open the batting, and once again he looked like he can own this game. Had the fan not been hurt so many times before, this might have been seen as a long- term solution to a crucial position. Apart from his extraordinary skills, which over a six-year career have been his best friends and worst enemies, Rohit has a quality last seen in VVS Laxman. Pace and bounce don't worry him. If he does fall to them, it is because of his impetuosity and his belief that he can conquer every ball. But on the back foot he seems to have more time than anyone else; he plays the cut and the pull, and can step up a gear almost unnoticed.

His critics will point out - and they will be right - that he has received more opportunities than anybody else in recent times, and that after 87 appearances he is still not a certainty. Maybe this position could be the making of him at last, but Rohit will be aware that while people want to celebrate his performances they will wait this time.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here