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India have lived up to their reputation of being profligate with the ball, but worryingly even their batting has begun to falter outside Asia
Abhishek Purohit in Wellington
January 30, 2014
In June 2013, India's ODI stocks were at a high. The selectors had just dropped several senior players and the young squad had done them proud by winning the Champions Trophy. With the World Cup only in February 2015, there was more than enough time for the immense promise shown in England to be further enriched by experience over the next year and a half.
Come January 2014, and the stocks have suddenly plummeted. India have been unable to win even one of their last six completed ODIs away from home and had the Centurion match against South Africa not been washed out after India conceded yet another 300-plus score, a seventh game might have been added to this sorry run.
India were blown away by Dale Steyn and co in South Africa but conditions were much more benign in New Zealand. Yet, it took a freak seventh-wicket partnership for India to avoid going down 0-4 to a side ranked at the other end of the ODI ladder.
MS Dhoni has admitted he does not know which fast bowlers he could possibly take with him to the World Cup. The slower they come, the faster they disappear. The faster they come, the faster they disappear. They take the pitch out of the equation, in the self-damaging way. For, as Dhoni said after the series was lost in Hamilton, if you keep bowling short and wide, you cannot complain that there are only four men on the boundary.
They all seem promising when they come into the squad. They all have varied, useful skills. But they are not able to sustain pressure, crack easily when put under it. You can keep talking about the finer points of seam position and release, but if you are not able to pitch successive deliveries in the same area close to off stump, such details are irrelevant. When they lose it, India's fast bowlers often do so together. They have a bowling coach, but it is not clear if his remit also includes developing mental strength, for they often panic when attacked.
It is not that India haven't tried and tested different personnel. Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Vinay Kumar, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav and Praveen Kumar have all played a decent number of games, at least 20, since the 2011 World Cup. The revolving door has seen many more in that period: Varun Aaron, Munaf Patel, Ashok Dinda, Jaydev Unadkat, Mohit Sharma, RP Singh, Abhimanyu Mithun and Zaheer Khan.
That last name is interesting as Zaheer's last ODI was in August 2012. He returned to the Test team stronger and fitter, but should India bring him back for the one-dayers too? How effective will he be under the new rules? While he lasts, the others can at least resume leaning on his experienced shoulders. This is completely short-term thinking, but the World Cup is also not too far ahead anymore.
Fast bowling is only one problem Dhoni is facing, but it is at least the usual one. It is the batting that will worry him, considering how over-reliant India are on it. It is rare that India's batsmen fail to shut out chases after coming close.
The openers, who were churning out century stands not too long ago, are now failing to convert starts. Shikhar Dhawan's gold rush had to end sometime but worryingly, he insists on charging and pulling short balls without any caution. Rohit Sharma starts the same way. He takes too many deliveries to get going unless the pitch is dead, and does not rotate the strike enough. He is not a natural opener, and you can be allowed a certain leeway for that, but his approach also jacks up the pressure on the batsman at the other end, especially during the chases.
|Shami, Ishant, Vinay, Bhuvneshwar, Yadav and Praveen have all played a decent number of games, at least 20, since the 2011 World Cup. The revolving door has seen many more in that period: Aaron, Munaf, Dinda, Unadkat, Mohit, RP Singh, Mithun and Zaheer|
The load on Virat Kohli and Dhoni himself has kept on increasing. They have continued to get the runs, but two batsmen, however great, can't plug the numerous leaks left behind by five bowlers. Ravindra Jadeja has finally shown encouraging signs of growing as an international batsman, but that is where another problem area emerges.
Dhoni has little faith, to an extent justifiably, in his fast bowlers. But he is also a man who will not deviate from standard policy till the ship has almost sunk. The combination of that means two spinners are what India will most likely always stick to, be it in South Africa or New Zealand. Jadeja and R Ashwin are fine bowlers and decent batsmen, but it is unlikely either of them are going to run through a top side at the MCG next year.
ODI cricket is changing slowly. The fielding restrictions have made aggressive captains realise they need to keep taking wickets to stay in the game. Containment, with only four deep fielders, is no longer the default option. With fewer boundary riders, release is always available to batsmen. Part-time bowlers have become a risky proposition. But for a man who has constructed an era based on stifling opposition batsmen with spinners and part-timers, it is not going to be easy to adapt.
As always, Dhoni is not spoilt for choice. New Zealand have Corey Anderson. They have Jimmy Neesham as back-up seam allrounder. India, on the other hand, have a modest option in Stuart Binny. But on his debut, the captain does not let him bat even at No 7, and instead gives him just one over with the ball.
Whichever area you look at, the picture appears bleak at the moment. There is just over a year left for the World Cup. India's players will go into extended Twenty20 mode soon with the World T20 and the IPL following which there are long Test tours of England and Australia.
On the evidence of the last two ODI series, India's World Cup defense appears on shaky ground, and there is not much time left to strengthen it.
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