India prosper in gruelling conditions
Tri-series, or bilateral ODI series for that matter, aren't usually remembered for long after the final ball has been bowled. Given that the latest one was greedily squeezed in at the cost of a couple of Test series, and followed immediately after the Champions Trophy, there weren't exactly too many looking forward to it. And it is unlikely too many will be remembering it for anything other than MS Dhoni providing the latest example of his superhuman capabilities with the bat. Which is a pity, really, for this series gave us so much of what has become almost alien to the ODI format these days.
There is something about the Caribbean that so often produces thrilling ODIs. You'll like them if your idea of thrill is five-set you-punch-I-counter-punch battles on the clay courts of Paris. In place of 350-plus chases, we got two proper modest-scoring ODI scraps, with West Indies and India winning by one-wicket margins as late as the 48th and the 50th overs. Instead of openers striding forward and murdering length deliveries, we had them fending for survival, taking blow after blow to their bodies. For the first time in a long while, here was a series which could be rightly be called a bowlers' one, one in which batsmen had to fight and earn their runs. Again, it was all down to the pitches, showing, by contrast, just how standardised limited-over cricket has been allowed to become over the years.
Instead of flat or "ideal one-day" pitches, Sabina Park and Queen's Park Oval produced surfaces which, although different, would have made for exciting Tests. Batting first was akin to handling the first session of a Test on a Sabina Park wicket spiced up by rain. It did ease up considerably during the chase, and while that made the toss important, you were still never in as a batsman even in the afternoon, as West Indies' collapse against India showed. Upul Tharanga and Mahela Jayawardene showed big scores were not impossible if superb batting came up against atrocious bowling, racking up a record 348 for 1 batting first against India.
Trinidad only stiffened the challenge for batsmen and also extended it throughout the game on a pitch green and brown in parts. Sri Lanka went for a Twenty20-style chase of 178 in 26 overs against India and were shot out for 96, showing just how lopsided and out-of-place the shortest version can look when the balance tilts in favour of the bowler.
The ODI version chose the final to display just how many twists and turns it can pack in a day's cricket, if the pitch is not dead. Sri Lanka suffered early jolts, rebuilt to reach a position of strength and collapsed in a heap. India kept losing wickets and scoring runs, the latter with difficulty, then had a collapse of their own before turned-down singles and near run-outs climaxed into Dhoni magic in the final over.
This tri-series was not in the FTP, and only Sri Lanka were supposed to travel to West Indies, but it may well be India who have benefited the most from it. They got their first look at the man who is widely seen as the captain-in-waiting. Virat Kohli led India on the field in all league games and came back to carry them to the final, after a heart-breaking one-wicket loss to West Indies and a thrashing from Sri Lanka in Jamaica.
He admitted to missing the calm of Dhoni in the middle, but came back the way he has built his ODI reputation - a match-winning century in a must-win game against West Indies. Four games are not much to go by, but on early evidence, Kohli, unlike Dhoni, likes to stick with his specialist bowlers as much as he can. And he is not averse to packing the infield with men in search of wickets. Though Dhoni's "calm" is other-worldly, Kohli will find his own level of calm as he goes along.
The biggest gain for India has to be that Rohit Sharma went from languid to laborious. He'd not done badly in the Champions Trophy but these conditions were alien to his free-flowing style. He scratched around, he was beaten, he was battered, but was prepared to look ugly and survive against two new balls. In a way, he was playing for his place, but that danger has hardly drawn a similar response from him in the past. He still did not convert the starts after all the labour, but in a series where others struggled to even start, there were consistent signs he is finally starting to respect his talent.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar was outstanding. He took wickets regularly with the new ball and was never easy to score off, which cannot be said about the other two seamers, Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma. Umesh is still too erratic for limited-overs and given his tendency to break down, India need to pare down his appearances in the format to preserve him for Tests. Ishant was India's most expensive first-choice bowler in conditions that suited his natural length, although he delivered some crucial wickets.
Shikhar Dhawan came down to earth, but it was Dinesh Karthik who was sorely disappointing with a highest score of 23 in five innings, and Zimbabwe might be his final chance for a while.
However, Zimbabwe won't provide the kind of challenges the conditions and oppositions in this tri-series posed for the Champions Trophy winners. If this is what the core of India's World Cup 2015 side could be, the largely inexperienced bunch could not have asked for a more strenuous workout. Unfortunately, as the World Cup gets closer, this tri-series will fade farther and farther into the blackhole of forgotten ODI events when in fact it may just have laid some important building blocks.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo