Let’s be honest. No one saw that coming in Hamilton.
Yes, sure, the team was without Virat Kohli, the best batsman in the world right now. Yes, the most experienced player in the squad, MS Dhoni, was sitting out for the second match running due to a niggle. But to be blown away for 92 (and that in itself thanks to same late recovery) and then losing the match with less than 50 overs bowled in the entire game was just a bolt out of the blue for the side that was leading 3-0 in the series.
Rohit Sharma, just four hours after walking out for the toss in his 200th one-day international appearance for India, was already giving his post-match interview. He called it one of the worst batting displays from India in a long, long time.
And he’s not wrong.
Here are some statistics: 92 all-out was India’s lowest ODI total in nine years; the highest scorer in the innings was Yuzvendra Chahal who also happened to face the most number of deliveries; the highest partnership for the innings came between Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav who also batted together for the longest period. It was not until Hardik Pandya hit three fours in one Trent Boult over that you started believing India would avoid being dismissed for a score lower than 54, their previous lowest in ODIs.
It was just one of those days.
Boult on fire
When Boult is in full flow, as he certainly was in Hamilton on Thursday, there are few sights as good in world cricket. He always plays with a smile, his action is a thing of cricketing perfection, his ability to swing the ball reminiscent of the great Wasim Akram. And he often has this tendency to go on a marauding smell when he gets into a rhythm.
That’s exactly what happened at Seddon Park, where despite the heat and humidity reminding everyone of Mumbai, Boult got the ball to talk and bowled 10 overs on the trot. Apart from the aforementioned 12-run over, Boult conceded nine runs from his remaining nine overs, that included five wickets. Five proper batsmen, succumbing to a stunning display of new ball bowling.
This is not the first time we have seen this happen with India though. The moving white ball has been something of a bugbear in ODI cricket for India. The latest occasions that come to mind are the 2017 Champions Trophy final and the match against Sri Lanka in Dharamsala. On both occasions, when the ball swung around in the air and seamed off the wicket, the top order came unstuck. The fact that it happens so rarely in white-ball cricket these days is also why it seems to take Indian batsmen aback when it does unfold.
While it is understandable, and even excusable, that the openers were caught off guard, India’s middle order was once again exposed. Shikhar Dhawan was at the receiving end of perhaps the best wicket-taking delivery Boult sent down (he admitted that he enjoyed that wicket the most after the match). Sharma was beaten by the ball stopping on the pitch ever so slightly while Boult completed a superb return catch. You could even understand Shubman Gill’s dismissal as being caused by nerves on debut and the pressure of the scoreboard as much as Boult’s brilliance.
Middle order exposed
But what will (and should) worry India is Ambati Rayudu and Dinesh Karthik’s dismissals in one Colin de Grandhomme over. The man who has never taken more than two wickets in a match before the one in Hamilton, sent back India’s No 4 and 5 without a run being scored.
Rayudu was guilty of going for the counter-punch way too early, driving a full ball to Martin Guptill at cover. One look at the man’s height and Rayudu should have known clearing him was not going to be easy. The 33-year-old has had a tough time during the recent ODIs but looked to have rediscovered his touch in the third match in Mount Maunganui. And when he had a golden chance to state his case for the World Cup squad definitively, he threw his wicket away.
Karthik, on the other hand, continues the trend in his career where he follows up promising performances with disappointing ones. For a man who is so abundantly talented with the bat, the Tamil Nadu wicket-keeper continues to throw precious opportunities away like he did during the Asia Cup last year. His dismissal was perhaps the softest of the lot in Hamilton as he left his bat hanging to a short-of-length ball outside off-stump. A gentle prod to Tom Latham, and another chance to impress came and went for Karthik.
While Kedar Jadhav also got a peach from Boult, his technique has never been his strong point and his role in this team is more of a lower-order enforcer who can chip in with the ball. It’s fairly evident he cannot be the man to lead a repair job if the team’s top-heavy batting lineup falters.
Pandya, for his part, kindled hopes of a counter-attack like he did in the CT final against Pakistan but Boult’s bouncer in his final over was just a bit too good for a man who can be understandably rusty after spending months away from the game.
The middle-order collapse was so bad that absence made the heart grow fonder of MS Dhoni. Say what you want about his waning batting skills, the belief that Dhoni can at least arrest a batting collapse is still strong among Indian team’s faithful.
So, do we read too much into this batting collapse? Of course not. Even Kane Williamson was quick to point out that we are unlikely to something like that in Wellington for the fifth ODI. Rohit Sharma was right in saying that it was unexpected and his team must go back to the drawing board and recoup quickly.
And, looking forward, as much as England is known for the ball to move around, it does not happen so much in limited overs cricket even there and chances of such a collapse happening at the World Cup would be remote. But the performance in Hamilton made this much clear: if it does happen, then this Indian batting line up has a lot to work on, especially the middle order.