“I’m sure I’ve seen this match just recently?” tweeted former Australian cricketer Tom Moody as he watched Australia cruise towards a seven-wicket win over India in the second One-day International (ODI) in Brisbane. Moody’s tweet summed up a night of déjà vu.
In a near repeat of the first ODI in Perth, the Indian batsmen, led by the in-form Rohit Sharma who scored 124, finished with a competitive total of 308/8 on a batting wicket before the bowlers failed to put up much resistance in defending it.
Worryingly, the Indians did not learn much from the first ODI. Voices coming out of the Indian camp after the Perth defeat had already suggested this. Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni had dismissed questions regarding the batsmen’s failure to fully capitalise on a great foundation. “310 was a good score,” he said, and put the blame squarely on the spinners’ ineffectiveness – which also came as a surprise to him. Sharma too had mentioned that the team’s “morale is very good” because they felt they had played “good cricket”.
It seemed that the game at Perth was filed as a case of simply having a bad day. That no fundamental alteration to their approach was required. That on another day, with the same match scenario and on the same flat track, Dhoni’s men might have come up trumps.
Brisbane then came as the reality check which Perth ought to have already been. Australia conquered another 300ish target and did it with equal, if not greater, ease. India played the same match all over again and unsurprisingly ended up with the same result.
Strength? What strength?
Let’s talk about India’s strength: the team’s batting. When Virat Kohli took over as Test skipper last year, he loaded the specialist batsmen with much greater responsibility by including an extra bowling option in the form of a bowling all-rounder. The thinking behind this move was that the Indian batsmen were good enough to handle the pressure of scoring more while the bowlers needed greater support. It has proven to be a success thus far.
Should Dhoni be doing the same in ODIs? If not in terms of team selection then perhaps by way of setting a higher target for them – essentially pushing the batsmen to the limit?
India were 166/2 at the 30-over mark on Friday. A score in excess of 330 was easily on the cards. Yet, Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane, the two set batsmen, scored only 44 in the next eight overs before launching an attack on the Aussie bowling. During this phase of play, Rohit took 18 balls to go from 90 to 100 and Rahane scored at less than a run a ball. Similar to overs 41 to 44 in the first ODI, which yielded only 26 runs. Even though India had nine wickets in hand, a sense of urgency was missing.
It is evident that there had been no word from the dressing room instructing the batting pair to move into a higher gear sooner rather than later – an indicator of how little was learned from the previous defeat. In the Australian innings, when openers Shaun Marsh and Aaron Finch were drifting along at modest speed even while laying a solid foundation for the run chase, they were told to get on with it during the drinks break.
The result? 56 runs came off the next five overs – a phase of play which took the game away from India.
Sharma’s method of batting did not change either – even if it is harsh to put India’s best player under the scanner. While his unbeaten 171 in the first game consisted of 52% scoring shots (48% dot balls), the 124 he scored in the second came off 127 balls and contained 53% scoring shots – a next to nothing improvement.
Glorious boundaries weren’t complemented with enough ones and twos. In comparison, opposition skipper Steven Smith had scored from the 67% of deliveries that he faced in the first ODI en route to a chanceless 149.
All this was disappointing, considering India’s bowling deficiencies on flat tracks are now well known. Granted that India lack a bit of depth in their batting – Manish Pandey is a newcomer, while Ravindra Jadeja is unreliable – which strongly influences the likes of Sharma to curb their risk-taking. But if it comes at the cost of limiting the overall score, a better alternative would be to have faith in the likes of Pandey and Jadeja. After all, they are in the starting XI for a reason.
Bowling? What bowling?
Timid bowling on road-like surfaces is a constant for India these days. The powerful variable is the batting. To aim for a higher score and achieve less along the way (something Dhoni keeps warning us of: “What if we didn’t even reach 310?”) is pardonable. To be meek and settle for a lower total that is certain to end up in defeat is not.
Let’s not also forget that the Indian bowlers are up against the best Australian batsmen but the batsmen are facing a second-string bowling attack. Already without Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, they even rested Josh Hazlewood, who is Australia’s spearhead in this series and had bowled figures of 10-0-41-1 in the first ODI. Mitchell Marsh got a break too.
This meant James Faulkner was the only real first-choice bowler on show, and even he is only an all-rounder. Series debutants Joel Paris and Scott Boland were milked for a combined 127 in 18 overs at Perth, but only 104 in the same number of overs in Brisbane. Even Glenn Maxwell, bowling his desultory off-spinners, conceded less than six per over from his six overs.
The pitches for the next three ODIs will not be as fast as those in Perth and Brisbane, which means the slower bowlers may come into play more. But they’ll remain good batting wickets. This means India must either alter their game plan, or risk a 0-5 drubbing. Either go for broke factoring in a weak bowling attack or opt to chase instead. Something must change.
India (308/8, 50 overs) lost to Australia (309/3, 49 overs) by 7 wickets.
Akarsh Sharma is a Delhi-based writer who tweets here.