Such things happen. Yes, they do. There are wickets that are unplayable. And perhaps the one that we saw in Kolkata for the first Test match against Sri Lanka was one of those. But in the beautiful environs of Dharamsala, the wicket didn’t do as much – well, it didn’t need to. The Indian batsmen fell like nine pins anyway.
The moment the ball starts darting around, the Indian batsmen seem to think that the safest place for them is not at the non-striker’s end but in the dressing room. How else can one explain a top order that made a beeline for the safety zone: 1-0, 2-2, 3-8, 4-16, 5-16.
Common sense would demand that the way to counter the moving ball would be to find a way to stay in the middle and negate the new ball for as long as possible – lower down the order, Mahendra Singh Dhoni chose to use his feet and make the bowlers do something different but surely the rest of the batsmen would have faced such conditions before. And that is why, shouldn’t they have a method... rather methods that they fall back on?
Common sense would have also demanded that the batsmen would understand that Virat Kohli is not part of the team. The Indian skipper, who also doubles up as the best ODI batsman in the world, is resting ahead of the South Africa series and in his absence, the other batsmen needed to step up. Instead, they chose to step down. India were dismissed for 112 – their lowest total in the 21st century.
It wasn’t the first time this has happened either but usually, you have Kohli to pick up the pieces. He has the smarts and the match awareness to temper his approach. But on Sunday, without him, the top order was like a rudderless craft that went where the currents chose to send it.
“We as a team want to thrive in these kinds of conditions and come out good,” said stand-in skipper Rohit Sharma in the post-match presentation. “We are not always going to play on flat pitches all the time and you have to understand your game and find a way to come out from that situation. Today was not an ideal day for all our batters but it was an eye-opener for all of us. Hopefully, in the next few games we can regroup and come out with a better batting performance.”
Perhaps the smarter thing is to learn; learn while Dhoni is still around. Most of India’s batsmen have now been around for a while – if not in international cricket then in domestic cricket at least. Yet, you have them making the same novice mistakes that they were making when they made their debuts.
The openers don’t know where their off-stump is, the batsmen were playing across the line even when the ball was scything parabolas through the air and finally, their only response to trouble seems to be to attack. But mostly, they still haven’t learnt how to calm their mind. At the first sign of trouble, they panic.
Contrast this to Dhoni’s approach. He came with the team in big trouble, he smiled, took a deep breath, made a good review decision and didn’t try anything silly. He knew that the ball wasn’t going to keep swinging – Lakmal needed to be played out – and after a while, things weren’t as difficult as they were at the start of the innings. India didn’t need 300 on this wicket. Even 220 would have given them a fighting chance.
But he had no support. Dhoni made 58.03% of team runs today (65 out of 112), it is the highest contribution by an Indian batsman in an ODI where all 11 players batted. He farmed the strike, he refused obvious singles, went for the big shots but did it with the assurance of a man who was in complete control of the proceedings – even when he was anything but in control.
And sometimes that is what batting is all about – it is not about hammering the opposition attack to pieces, it is about giving your bowlers a chance to dominate too. In India, it may not often feel that way, but it is an equal partnership.
“Dhoni has done it for so many years and he knows exactly what to do in these situations. I was not surprised with the way he batted and someone with him would have made the difference in the end. But he was the only one battling... that’s where I felt we were 50-60 runs short,” said Sharma.
The question, though, is why has nobody other than Kohli managed to pick up the tricks of the trade from Dhoni. He knows ‘exactly what to do’ but why don’t the others?
It is almost a shame that the others are absorbing all they can from Dhoni.
Come South Africa, it might be a question we will all ponder over a lot more but for now, India has two games to go and a series to win.
“Two games to go... yes... but having said that we were not upto the mark today. Not enough runs on the board. In the end, the bowlers came out and did what they could, if we would’ve had 78-80 runs more could have helped. We lost the game with the bat today,” said Sharma.
More like, at the first sign of a helpful track, they lost it in the mind. Essentially, the fear of defeat; the fear of being dropped is what often gets players to stray from the game plan and stop seeing the bigger picture. But as Dhoni himself once said, ‘You die, you die. You don’t see which is the better way to die.’
So then, what are we really afraid of?