London: There are two ways to look at India’s loss to Pakistan in the 2017 Champions Trophy final.

One – India (read top order) peaked too early, they made the wrong decision to field after winning the toss, and then nothing went their way. Sure, the middle-order (barring Hardik Pandya) could have shown more spine and the bowlers – especially the spinners – could have bowled more aggressively in the middle phase of Pakistan’s innings.

The bottom-line however is that Sunday was the opposition’s day, and everything Pakistan touched turned to gold. There is very little any team can do when an opener – dismissed off a no-ball – goes on to smack a hundred without giving another half-chance, or when Mohammad Amir destroys your in-form batsmen like he did.

So, you can go be angry at team India’s performance and go break a television or cry in a corner, depending upon your state of mind.

The other way to look at this defeat is in the glass-half-full manner. Simply put, the twin losses to Pakistan and Sri Lanka have glaringly highlighted India’s current shortcomings. And a good thing, for there is now a firm roadmap ahead of the 2019 ODI World Cup, also to be staged in England.

Where are the spinners?

On belters like the one at The Oval, it is expected that someone like R Ashwin will get smacked about. Skipper Virat Kohli said as much in the post-match conference, defending the off-spinner, saying that it was “tough to control runs when slogged against the line.”

This is the stark reality of today’s limited-overs’ cricket, where spinners are forced to use two new balls from both ends, and being thrashed with gay abandon. Of course it doesn’t help when there is no swing available either, and the bowling captain is trying to contain the opposition with one hand tied. The problem though is compounded when someone like Ravindra Jadeja gets hit out of the attack.

The left-arm spinner has a career economy of 4.92 in ODIs. In this tournament, he gave away runs at 5.92 in five matches. But, Sri Lanka hit him for 8.66 per over and Pakistan took him for 8.37 per over. For someone like Jadeja, who doesn’t give away too much irrespective of the format, two poor showings in last four games were more than just an anomaly. It was an indication of how flatter tracks with short boundaries are ill-suited for the likes of Jadeja-Ashwin, in particular their bowling combination as a spin pairing.

When travelling overseas, again irrespective of the format, Indian spinners perform a holding role. This was particularly true when Jadeja was the lone-spinner in a five-man attack for the first two games. Once he got hit against Lanka, Kohli had no one to turn to, and so, he brought in Ashwin to do the holding job. It worked against Bangladesh because the pacers provided early breakthroughs. It didn’t against Pakistan because the early wickets never came and their batsmen had a license to go hammer and tongs against the spinners.

This problem is further complicated by Hardik Pandya’s inability to bowl his complete quota of overs. “On a good day, he can give me seven overs,” said Kohli in the pre-match conference ahead of the final. It was a staggering remark, because Pandya had come to this tournament as India’s foremost all-rounder, his dry run in the spotlight before the big event in 2019. It hasn’t gone to plan.

Pandya completed his quota of overs in only two games, against South Africa and Pakistan. The latter game put Kohli’s comments above in an ironical light for the Indian skipper still struggled with his bowling despite Pandya bowling well. Jadeja didn’t complete his overs against Lanka or Pakistan (in the final), either. It brought Kedar Jadhav’s pie chucking antics into the picture. Never mind that spell against Bangladesh, when your five-bowler attack cannot do the job, it means you are in trouble.

If similar wickets are laid out in 2019, which should be so expectedly, then Ashwin and Jadeja do not fit into the same playing eleven. You cannot have two spinners doing a holding job, for one of them has to attack. Herein, India could experiment with bringing a leg-spinner in. Yuzvendra Chahal is an obvious candidate, given Kohli’s confidence in him. Kuldeep Yadav too could be in contention, as he is currently on his way to the West Indies. The next two years ought to be used to groom these two spinners.

The middle-order mess is back

Through 2015 and 2016, the Indian selectors tried to sort out the mess in the Indian middle order, trying everyone from Suresh Raina to Ambati Rayudu to Ajinkya Rahane to Gurkeerat Mann to Rishi Dhawan to Manish Pandey. The latter provided some hope, along with Jadhav and Pandya, and it seemed all sewn up going into the ODI series against New Zealand. Pandey’s failure in that series meant that the search was still on when England returned in January 2017 to play a short ODI series.

Yuvraj Singh made a stellar comeback, and he has done well to shore up the No. 4 spot. But at best, this can be considered a stopgap arrangement meant only for the Champions Trophy alone. He started well against Pakistan, with a blistering half-century. No one asked though what would have happened if Hasan Ali had managed to hold that catch.

Putting it simply, Yuvraj would have been out for nine runs at Birmingham and his tournament tally from four innings would have read 61 runs instead of the current 105. It is conjectured yes, but neither 61 nor 105 make for good reading from a No 4 batsman. An argument can be made that the top-order was in such good form, and he didn’t get a proper opportunity for more lasting impact. Well, coming in at 6/2 against Pakistan in the final was so, an ample one at that.

MS Dhoni’s case is a bit complicated. He is still a keeper beyond excellence, and his inputs to Kohli at crucial junctures in this tournament have proven that the current skipper has much to learn from his predecessor. With the bat, Dhoni showed enough spunk to carry India to 322 against Lanka, but failed to get going against Pakistan.

The question to ask here is this. Can the Kohli-Dhoni pairing be separated in the build-up to 2019? Like fielding with Jadeja, Dhoni merits a place in the eleven for his superb inputs to the skipper, managing the fielding angles from behind the stumps, and his remarkable DRS judgment skills. But for greater good, perhaps separation is necessary yes, because Dhoni can no longer continue to bat at No 5, unless there is a younger, more consistent and adventurous option than Yuvraj available at No 4.

 Let it be said here, point blank – like Ashwin-Jadeja, both Yuvraj and Dhoni cannot be part of the same playing eleven come 2019.   

This has to be the thinking with which the team management has to go forward, and clearly it wasn’t so when the team to West Indies was picked. There is investment to be made in this regard. Pandey deserves a long rope at No 4, while names like Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer merit a go on the international stage. One of Yuvraj or Dhoni has to make way for these youngsters so that they can get enough opportunities in the next two years.

Another school of thought suggests that Pandya – thanks to his explosive histrionics in the final – can move up to No 6. Think about it – he is a better fielder, and arguably more explosive than Jadhav. Plus, he frees up the No 7 spot to allow for an additional bowler – pace or spin – thus becoming a sixth bowling option for Kohli. In that light, India would need only one additional batsman – at No 4 or 5 – thus transferring their team’s balance in favour of bowling than batting, which is the need of the hour given how flat wickets have overtaken world cricket.

Playing with a batsman short will heap more responsibility on the batting order, but as in the Test arena, the same line-up has shown they are up to the task. An anchoring No 4 and an explosive No 6 with either Yuvraj or Dhoni playing in between them will go a long way in shoring the top-order, and in particular prevent this batting line-up to be solely dependent on Kohli, specifically in run-chases.

In summation then, this might seem like a lot of homework to do, especially given how the defending champions finishes runners-up. But the ease with which India lost to Sri Lanka and Pakistan opened up gaping holes in their existing strategy. Clearly, ahead of 2019, Kohli, the coach (whoever he is!) and the selectors have a lot to think about.

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