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India's conservative starts batting first in ODIs hurting them

It is a matter of a shift in attitude and some time to get used to England's style of play

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
On a day that a lot will be said about India's bowling, these figures of the opposition's fingerspinner are the story. Moeen Ali, who averages 51 runs for a wicket and concedes at 5.30 an over in ODIs, bowled at 4.70 an over in a match where 336 was gunned down in 43.3 overs. In all, Ali was hit for one boundary, that too thanks to a misfield by Ben Stokes at the 30-yard ring. ESPNcricinfo's scorers recorded only one aggressive stroke attempted off Ali's 60 balls that were bowled in a single unbroken spell starting at the 17th over, by which time India's third-wicket partnership was 7.2 overs old.
Ali is no mystery bowler. He doesn't bowl the carrom ball. He was bowling to two right-hand batsmen, one of them among the greatest ever to play the format. The pitch was not turning: spinners have combined figures of 67-0-489-2 in this series. All Ali did was avoid bad balls, and India didn't bother to attack the good ones. This was a period of ceasefire where England didn't try to manufacture a middle-overs wicket, and India didn't go out of their way to hit the spinners out of the attack.
Consequently, for a second match in a row India needed a crazy two-run-a-ball innings to get to what was still a second below-par total in a row. In the last game a freak collapse gave India the series lead, this time the bowling reverted to type: since the start of 2020, the first wicket has cost India 115 runs on an average at 6.40 an over. And for a majority of this time, India have had their best attack barring Bhuvneshwar Kumar to choose from.
India are a very good ODI side. In the last three World Cups, they have won one and made two other semi-finals. They are consistently among the top three ODI sides at any given point of time. Their win-loss ratio is always impressive. Their batting takes care of itself when they are chasing. It is when batting first that their conservative attitude is keeping them from becoming the undisputed leader of the field.
To put it in one sentence, they don't subscribe to England's principle: they would rather be aggressive and risk falling short by 70 than consistently staying par or 10 below par. India like to take games deep. Just stay in games for long period of times and never risk losing out too early. That's the cricket this team's leaders, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, learnt under MS Dhoni. It is not that they lack the skill. When Australia chased successfully with 10 wickets to spare in 2019-20, India responded with a 340 in the next ODI. West Indies won with eight wickets in hand, and India came back with a 387 three days later. Every time they are pressed against the wall, they respond with aggressive and successful cricket batting first, but drop back to conservative cricket at the start of every series.
The last time India were presented with such a challenge in ODI cricket - they consistently found out their 325s were not the above-par totals they would have liked to believe - they responded by overhauling their bowling. The two wristspinners worked like a charm, but now the world seems to have caught up with them. With just four fielders outside the circle, they are getting attacked. Yuzvendra Chahal is a completely different bowler in T20Is when he has that extra fielder out. ODI cricket has thrown a huge challenge at spinners - as R Ashwin points out in this video - and this time India's spinners are not immune.
It was interesting that Kohli said at the post-match presentation that he felt India had posted a decent total on the board, and that they were blown away by a freak partnership. Three of the last 11 successful chases of 300 in ODIs have come against India. Make it 280, and India have lost four of the last nine successful chases.
The way Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya bat, especially with KL Rahul now as that dynamic middle-order batsman, it is scary how good India can be if their top order decides to bat the way England do. To be fair, Kohli takes more risks now than he did a couple of years ago, but there is a chance that with three such similar batsmen at the top, India are still lagging in that regard.
Not long ago, with Dhoni and others struggling in the middle order, there might have been a case for the top order to be conservative so that they can be at the back end to maximise the death overs, but that is not the case now. Even if Sharma sets himself up for a crazy assault at the end, he won't be going much faster that what Pant, Rahul and Pandya anyway do. With the bowlers getting further marginalised, there might be a case for India to relook at how they bat in the first 30 overs when batting first.
India have all the skill to be as good if not better than England; it is a matter of a shift in attitude and some time to get used to that new style of play. Perhaps even a slight change of personnel.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo