India’s capitulation at Old Trafford has to rank as amongst the three worst performances by an Indian cricket team in the last three decades that I have followed cricket. The other two were the debacles at the Oval in 2011 and at Perth in 2012. The only two common threads in the three defeats are M.S. Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher, but more on that later. It is time to analyze dispassionately what aspects of this team need to change, and which aspects we need to persist with and show patience towards. That is the subject of this post.
Without question, the failures that have hurt us most in this series are those of Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli. In 15 years, the only series in which Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar both failed was in Dravid’s last one in Australia. Having both pillars of our batting fail together is obviously a huge blow. But it is not a matter of concern to me. Pujara and Kohli are both class acts who have proven themselves in conditions abroad; all batsmen go through lean patches; and it is our poor fortune that theirs has come together, after years of consistent success. But both are just one good innings away from returning to form, and they both remain central to any prospect of success we might have in Australia later in the year.
Many questions have also been asked about our seam attack, but that too is not a worry for me. It is true that this is a young, raw and inconsistent attack. But it is an attack full of potential, and with proper guidance, these are bowlers who will only get better. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma (when fit) have been outstanding, and provide a potentially potent new ball partnership for the long term. Varun Aaron bowled with fire and genuine promise at Old Trafford. Pankaj Singh bowled too many four-balls; but he was also desperately unlucky, toiled manfully through his misfortune, showed the capacity to bowl long spells, and on occasion worked up pretty useful pace. He has had to work harder than most to get his chance, and he deserves a proper run before judgment is passed on him. Ishwar Pandey has been the outstanding seam bowler in domestic cricket over the past couple of years, has genuine potential, and has been kept on the bench for too long. And Mohammed Shami, who has been the one disappointment amongst the seamers, is a special talent who deserves a long rope, especially since this is his first failure in 10 months of international cricket. I also like the selectors’ idea of selecting 6 seamers for a long tour such as this, because it provides back-up options in case of injury and poor form and allows for rotation in case of tiredness. It is a policy worth pursuing in Australia, and we have the right personnel in these six seamers to provide a varied and challenging attack if they are properly used.
I would argue that the real problems are four-fold, as follows:
First – the opening partnership. Murali Vijay has been a revelation in England, but serious questions have been asked of Shikhar Dhawan’s technique. Of course Dhawan has done well elsewhere over the past 18 months, including in New Zealand, so it is too early to give up on him. But he has also failed his two sternest tests, in South Africa and England, so it is also hard to place too much confidence in his abilities to tackle Mitchell Johnson and co. in Australian conditions. From the perspective of team balance, having an opening partnership that can fire is essential, and the fact that we have not had a single half-century opening partnership abroad since 2011 is one of the central reasons for our poor performance abroad.
This is why the first major change to be made is to find two openers who have the technique to succeed on fast pitches abroad. Vijay has indicated enough to suggest that he is one of them; Dhawan may or may not be the other. But Gautam Gambhir is certainly not the solution to this problem, and his selection in the 18 to tour England was misplaced. Gambhir was never the strongest batsman technically; what allowed him his success between 2008 and 2010 was his strong temperament. But there have been no signs of that temperament for over three years now. Gambhir’s selection for this tour was not based on any form – his performances for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy last year were distinctly ordinary – but was purely a function of past reputation. That cannot be the basis for selecting him for a tour as difficult as Australia. As far as I am concerned, this is the end of the road for Gambhir.
The answer to our opening conundrum lies in Lokesh Rahul. He is technically quite simply the best young prospect in India today, and his form for Karnataka has been outstanding. He should have been the third opener in England, and there is no doubt in my mind that he is the best bet as Vijay’s opening partner in Australia. He must be brought in to replace Gambhir.
Second – we need a halfway decent spin attack. It is a shame that in recent years our spinners have been out-bowled not just by quality bowlers like Graeme Swann, but by trundlers like Nathan Lyon and Moeen Ali. It is easy to forget that some of our memorable successes abroad in the 2000s were on the backs of quality spin performances, invariably by Anil Kumble. Unless one has a seam attack of the caliber of the current Australian or South African attack, the absence of a quality spinner will hurt.
Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja do not constitute a halfway decent spin attack. Both are cricketers with merit – but more as a function of their overall utility rather than because of their quality as spinners per se. Jadeja indeed was drafted into the side not for his bowling but for the triple hundreds he churned out for Saurashtra – batting form that has rarely materialized while playing for India. Indeed, Jadeja has looked at best a number 8 batsman in Tests. This would be fine if his bowling compensated, but it is bowling that is clearly suited only to Indian conditions: after his 6-wicket haul in his first overseas Test at Durban, he has shown no penetration in either New Zealand or England. Ashwin in contrast came into the side as a bowler who could bat a bit, but it is his batting that has been the revelation. He was one of our best batsmen in Australia in 2011, and looked better than any of our frontline batsmen in Old Trafford. But all of his bowling successes have been in sub-continental conditions. Having one of these two in a playing 11 could be useful because they do lend balance to the side, providing a fifth bowling option and batting skills. But playing them both and pretending that we have a dual spin attack is a joke – basically, this means that even if on paper we are playing 5 bowlers, in practice two of them are bits-and-pieces cricketers and we are left with only three frontline bowlers. I do think that Ashwin has an important role to play in our Test plans in Australia (on which more below). But neither Ashwin nor Jadeja alone can be expected to take on the role of lead spinner, and having them both in the side together doesn’t make up for the absence of a genuine spinner who can provide an attacking yet reliable option.
The only person who can play that role in India today is Pragyan Ojha, and it is simply scandalous that we have tried Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra (miserable flops in England in 2011), Ashwin (miserable flop in Australia in 2011, South Africa in 2013) and Jadeja (miserable flop in New Zealand and England 2014); but our steadiest, most dependable spinner has not had a single Test match outside the sub-continent. Ojha is someone who can keep things tight, but who also has natural flight and loop and can attack; he is someone who has a solid temperament, and who has never let the team down; he is someone who picked up 10 wickets and a man of the match award in the last Test he played, against the West Indies in Mumbai. He would be the first bowler I would put on a team sheet, and it is high time he got his due.
Third – we need a number 6 who can play a role with both bat and ball. There is no way we can win matches abroad without 5 bowlers. But our batting is brittle enough that we cannot afford to have a batting line-up that ends at no. 5 in order to accommodate that fifth bowler. I am not looking for a Kapil Dev here – there is no one in India of that caliber. What I am looking for is either a Ravi Shastri – a support bowler who is good enough to bat at 6 – or a Sourav Ganguly – a frontline batsman who can be relied upon to bowl 10-15 overs and pick up a wicket or two in conditions abroad.
I had hoped that Jadeja would play a Shastri-esque role, but his batting is not even good enough for a reliable no. 7, let alone no. 6. Yet the person who can play that role is Ashwin. He has technical solidity, all the shots, and is comfortable against the short ball. He is good enough to be groomed as a long-term no. 6. I don’t have confidence that he can be relied upon as a frontline spinner, but he would certainly make an excellent support spinner to Ojha and be a genuine fifth bowler. Similarly, Rohit Sharma is no Ganguly, either with the ball or with the bat, and like Jadeja has shown no indication that he has what it takes to succeed outside the sub-continent. But Manoj Tiwary is a frontline batsman who has constantly improved as a bowler, and could well play the kind of fifth bowler role that a Ganguly or a Michael Clarke have played for their respective teams. Purely on batting merit, Tiwary is far more deserving than Rohit, and has shown substance and consistency over the years in four-day cricket. In contrast, Rohit has earned his Test spot largely on the basis of pretty T20 cameos and Dhoni’s favoritism. Add Tiwary’s superior bowling skills, and bringing him in for Rohit should be a no-brainer. Having both Ashwin and Tiwary in the side as possible number 6 provides the captain with multiple options, of either strengthening the batting or the bowling depending on the conditions, but without sacrificing the other as the case currently is.
This brings me to the fourth and most important point, the captain. Dhoni got many kudos for his captaincy at Lord’s, but he was helped by an inspired spell from Ishant, and by English ineptness. Since that win, he has reverted to form with a vengeance – muddled team selections, peculiar bowling changes, bizarre field placements and a fundamentally defensive mentality. This is not new; our record abroad since 2011 now reads 1-12 in 15 matches. And Dhoni has shown no sign of learning from his mistakes. I would rather we lose under a raw captain who learns from his mistakes than under a stubborn captain who keeps repeating them over and over. In addition, what has gone without scrutiny is Dhoni’s miserable keeping this series – failure to go for chances that he should have taken, botched run-outs and the like. His batting has been better than it has been in the past; but even there, Wriddhiman Saha with his better technique, and Naman Ojha, fresh from a 500+ run series in Australia for India A, are likely to be more successful in Australia. Meanwhile, the less said about Duncan Fletcher’s non-performance as coach, the better. You mark my words: if we send a team to Australia with Kohli as captain, Anil Kumble as coach and Sanjay Bangar as assistant coach, this group of youngsters will give the Aussies a run for their money.
What I am asking for, in effect, is simple: a team that has two openers with solid technique; a number 6 who has adequate batting and bowling skills to lend balance to the side; a genuine frontline spinner; and a captain who has some modicum of attacking sensibility and willingness to learn from his mistakes. This is not rocket science. We have the personnel for this in Lokesh Rahul, Ravichandran Ashwin / Manoj Tiwary, Pragyan Ojha and Virat Kohli respectively. What we need is the vision and courage, from somewhere, to take on the Dhoni-Srinivasan mafia and implement these basic and necessary changes.
[Post-script: and what of the Oval? Unfortunately, Rahul, Tiwary and Ojha are not options there, and Dhoni is not going to step down or make way for another captain. At this point, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being bold, so I would make the following changes. First, send Ashwin up to open with Vijay. He has looked far more solid than either Dhawan or Gambhir, and he certainly can’t do worse than them. It won’t be a long-term move, but would be the first step to signaling that his place in the side is as a top 6 batsman who can bowl. Second, bring Naman Ojha in as a specialist batsman at 6. He has better technique and is in far better form than Rohit. Third, and obviously, bring the fit again Ishant Sharma back in for Pankaj Singh. Since the Oval traditionally takes spin, I am inclined to give Jadeja another chance; but there is a case also for giving Ishwar Pandey a go instead to see what he can do, especially if there is some grass on the wicket; or even persisting with Pankaj for another game as third seamer].
My team for the Oval: Vijay, Ashwin, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Ojha, Dhoni, Jadeja / Pandey / Pankaj, Bhuvnesh, Ishant, Aaron
And for Australia: Vijay, Rahul, Pujara, Kohli ©, Rahane, Ashwin / Tiwary, Saha (W), Bhuvnesh, Ishant, Aaron, P. Ojha (Reserves: Dhawan, Tiwary / Ashwin, N. Ojha (W), Shami, Pandey, Pankaj)