While the action on the cricket field during the five one-day internationals between India and Australia was high quality, intense and, at most times, edge-of-the-seat stuff, the off-field discussion in India was dominated by one word you often associate with reality television: auditions.
The commentary, the published word, the social media chatter was all about how different Indian players auditioned for their tickets for the all-important World Cup starting in May.
As the series came to an end with Australia completing a turnaround from 0-2 down to win it 3-2 for the first time in their storied history, you would not have been alone in thinking: well, this is not the ideal preparation for the World Cup for India.
After all the talk about India being the much better side, the obvious question to ask Virat Kohli was: did he get the answers he was looking for from all the experiments at the cost of a series defeat?
“We are more or less sorted,” Kohli said in Delhi. “Now, it’s about giving guys their roles and expect them to stand up. We are not at all confused. Maybe there’s just one spot we’ve to discuss.”
“The last three games, the idea was to give the guys on the bench and the fringe guys a bit of game time as well and just put them in those positions and see how they react. And you couldn’t have tried that anywhere else apart from those three games. That is not an excuse at all because we expect to raise our standard of cricket.”
So, who responded to the team management’s call and who didn’t?
Some success with experimentation
The first name that comes to mind is Vijay Shankar. His 46 in Nagpur in the second ODI saw him outshine Kohli for the period he was in the middle before an unfortunate run-out. His 26 in Ranchi made sure India did not suffer a familiar collapse at the end after a strong platform. His 32 in Ranchi and 16 in Delhi were two innings that looked promising before he perished for attempting one big shot too many. He batted at different positions across the series and generally came across as well equipped to be a floater in the middle order.
With the ball, he delivered a thrilling final over in the second ODI and bowled with control in Ranchi on a day when Kohli looked short of bowling options. It is fair to say that the Tamil Nadu all-rounder did his chances of going to the World Cup no harm, although the team might have loved to see one of those cameos with the bat translate into a match-winning innings.
And though not part of the fringe, Shikhar Dhawan’s return to form in Mohali would have been a welcome relief for the team management. His slump was getting real but on a pitch that will not be dissimilar to the ones India are likely to come across at the World Cup in England, he showed he can be an impact player.
When he played, and even when he did not, MS Dhoni established how important he is, from behind the stumps and in front of it. The middle order looks short of big-match experience without his presence while his wicket-keeping, for long an underrated aspect of his game, was sorely missed in a high-scoring match in Mohali.
Mohammed Shami continued resurgence was a positive as well, while Bhuvneshwar Kumar showed in the two matches he has played that talk of the former pipping him in the pecking order might just yet be premature. His batting display in Delhi was a reminder of what he brings to the table, with India’s tail looking increasingly to be a weak point but more on that later.
“This, we feel, is our most balanced side,” declared Kohli at the toss in the decider as he rung in the changes once again. KL Rahul, Yuzvendra Chahal made their way out of the XI and Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Shami returned to bolster the bowling lineup while a shaky batting order was further weakened.
Now, it is difficult to understand if Kohli was just referring to this match or the World Cup too, when he said playing three front-line seamers, Kuldeep Yadav and two all-rounders is India’s ‘most balanced’ side. That equation is bound to change when Hardik Pandya comes in and given Vijay Shankar’s performances with the bat, he might be a like-for-like replacement in the XI.
India’s middle order will be its Achilles heel: Reactions to series defeat against Australia
The most intriguing aspect of the calls in Delhi was once again Chahal being sidelined for Jadeja, who was not even in the original squad. The leg-spinner was taken to the cleaners in Mohali and Jadeja came back into the side presumably for his potential as an all-rounder. Kohli said he adds depth to the batting but in the eight times he has batted in the last year, Jadeja averages 17.28 (121 runs) which drops a point further in the matches he has batted while India are chasing. He has repeatedly flattered to deceive as a batsman in this format and Delhi was no exception.
And then the middle order. What can we say about the No 4 spot that has not already been said? In two of the last three ODI assignments before the World Cup, Ambati Rayudu has not finished the series he started. When he does play, he seems tentative, perhaps weighed down by the pressure of it all. His scores of 13, 18 and 2 forced Kohli to come out at No 4 in the fourth match, with Rahul at No 3 — another experiment that did not quite pay off.
Which brings us to perhaps the biggest disappointment from an Indian perspective: Rishabh Pant, who batted at No 4 in the final match. The youngster is clearly a work in progress behind the stumps and his flamboyant batting style continues to be hit-and-miss in ODIs. His cameo in Mohali showed what he is capable of but his dismissals in both matches also showed that he is not ready for a place in the team as a pure batsman.
So, if the focus was to see which of the so-called fringe guys stepped up under the spotlight during the course of the series, despite Kohli’s calm demeanour, the overall answer is not something that can please the team management. The captain’s quest for the perfect balance has so far eluded him despite what he would have you believe but India are a well-oiled machine in the 50-over format in more ways than not. The target would now be to make sure the right combination is chosen and, as Kohli said, players know their roles and deliver when it matters the most. From that end, the Australia series provided quite a few pointers on who can and who cannot.