The first ODI in South Africa was a rude awakening, but not a surprising one. I have been saying for a while that inflating reputations and creating hype based on flat-track performances against inferior teams is fine for an Indian cricket establishment that is more invested in its media branding than in the actual improvement of the game in the country. But the real quality of the team will be determined when we tour. We might well do better in the remaining ODIs in South Africa – certainly, we can’t do much worse – but the first game has already highlighted some obvious things, both in terms of our ODI plans and in terms of the Tests to come. I point to five such things below.
The first is painfully obvious, and something I have been harping on for a while now. This is that a one-day line-up without Cheteshwar Pujara is bound to fail in seam-friendly conditions. It is easy to forget how central Rahul Dravid was to our fortunes in the mid-2000s, especially in our run to the finals in the 2003 World Cup. Ravi Shastri was blabbering about how conditions in Australia will be more favorable to batting than in South Africa – I wonder if he was busy covering Antarctica Penguins XI versus Patagonian Predators when we last toured that country? The fact remains that invariably Dravid was treated badly “as not a one-day player” whenever we played at home, but desperately called for when we toured abroad. It might be worth learning from that lesson and actually giving Pujara a decent run. We don’t have a proper no. 4 in the ODI side – something Dhoni has admitted in so many words – but we have a readymade one waiting in the wings. However good this selection committee might be, Pujara’s exclusion from the ODI side is a scandal. Similarly, it is obvious to all that Ajinkya Rahane is technically better suited to open than Rohit Sharma. Much has been made about Rohit’s ability against the short ball – but the pundits seem to have forgotten than an opener needs to also play a moving ball. Rohit’s showing against Dale Steyn was simply embarrassing – and Steyn didn’t bowl him a single bouncer in his opening spell. Rohit is a much improved player from two years ago – but his ideal place is still in the middle order. The idea that Yuvraj and Raina can provide us more than Rahane and Pujara in Australia in 2015 would have been laughable – if it were not so comprehensively damaging to our chances of defending our World Cup.
My other points speak more to the coming Test series, which is still in my opinion the more important part of the tour. So second: much has been made of this series being a battle between SA’s bowling and our batting. But I think that’s wrong. Our batting is inexperienced, but it has potential. The real battle is between our bowling and SA’s batting, because that is where the real mismatch is. SA has the best batting line-up in the world. Our bowling line-up is amongst the worst. This too was evident in the first ODI, when our bowlers made a seam-friendly track look like the Mumbai-Pune highway. This means that there is no question that we have to play five bowlers. This is clearly the only selection dilemma facing our team management – whether to play the extra batsman (who would in this dispensation be Rahane) at 6, or play Jadeja instead and have Dhoni bat at 6. If that was the only option, it becomes particularly tricky. On grounds of fairness, it is high time Rahane plays. And a line-up that ends at 5, to be followed by Dhoni and then Jadeja, looks thin indeed. Dhoni has never shown himself as an adept Test batsman in bowler-friendly conditions. Indeed, he couldn’t even handle Tino Best in batsman-friendly conditions. And while Jadeja got into the Test side on the back of his triple centuries for Rajkot, the irony is that it is as a bowler that he has thrived in both forms of the game. If anything, over the past months, Ashwin has consistently looked the better Test batsman than Jadeja, while Jadeja has looked like the more reliable bowler.
And so, third: the second big mistake this selection committee has made has been in selecting Ambati Rayudu rather than Abhisekh Nayar. Now I have nothing against Rayudu – he has done the hard yards, and he is oh so much a better option than Suresh Raina, who would have probably been Srikkanth’s pick. (Though Srikkanth could just as easily picked a caterpillar, and would have grinned through such a selection with that disturbingly inane and non-explanatory look that was such a hallmark of his reign. He made Mohammad-bin-Tughlak look like Einstein, after all). But the fact is, we are now in a situation where the dilemma is not just between the two best men for the job, but between the balance of the side itself. That is never a good dilemma. Nayar has done everything Shikhar Dhawan has – gone back to domestic cricket after his first failure, done the hard yards, come back a better player. It is also always good in principle to have two all-rounders to choose from, and if one of them is a seamer and the other a spinner, all the better. Not having Nayar in the side means that we are presented with a Faustian bargain – pick that extra batsman to ensure we can never take 20 wickets? Or pick the extra bowler and hope that Morne Morkel bowls enough no balls that we might manage to get to 100 in one of our innings?
Fourth: the solution to this is to take five bowlers, but make sure that we also pick our five best batsmen. Now some of the people I have written off have proven me wrong in recent times – for instance, Rohit Sharma (albeit in Indian conditions). But nothing can convince me that Murali Vijay is a better Test opener than Rahane. Vijay’s form has been nothing to write home about since March; he has never done well in conditions abroad, failing miserably in the West Indies two years ago and again with India A in South Africa earlier this year; technically, he is a far inferior batsman to Rahane, especially against the moving ball. And while Rahane has suddenly been anointed a middle order batsman, he has opened for most of his career, including very successfully in Australia with an emerging players side a couple of years ago. Indeed, other than Rahane, there is no reserve opener in the side – if either Dhawan or Vijay were to be injured, it would have to be Rahane who is pushed into that role. Our best 6 surely has to be Rahane, Dhawan, Pujara, Kohli, Rohit and Dhoni – indeed, I would suggest that is our best 6 in both Tests and limited overs (with Pujara and Kohli swapping places in the batting order across formats). There is no way based on merit that Vijay deserves to be in the starting line-up ahead of Rahane for the 1st Test.
Finally: given the paucity of our bowling strength, we also do need our five best bowlers to play. A seam attack consisting of Zaheer, Bhuvnesh and Shami has potential, especially if Zak holds up and approaches his best; but he does remain a question mark, and his partners are inexperienced. (Neither Ishant nor Umesh, who will probably sit on the bench, inspires much confidence based on their form over the past 12 months). This means that Dhoni really needs a spin duo that can be relied upon to bowl long spells and keep things tight, even if they don’t get pitches where they can run through the opposition. Jadeja can do that; but as with Vijay and Rahane, there is nothing that convinces me that Ashwin is a better bowler outside the sub-continent than Ojha is. If at all Ashwin plays ahead of Ojha, it has to be for his batting; well as he has bowled in India, he just cannot be relied upon in unhelpful conditions to stick to the basics and create or maintain disciplined pressure. Ojha can, and has been in fine form.
At the end of the day, I don’t expect a series win, or even a win in a single Test. 0-2 has to be the most likely result. But what I hope for is fight that was so lacking when we toured England and Australia; and for some of the youngsters to put their hands up and show they are good enough to play in Tests abroad. I think the people with the most to prove are not Dhawan, Rohit or Jadeja – these are people who have yet to be given a chance in Tests abroad, and they deserve that chance without being judged too harshly. The ones who need to prove themselves are those who looked completely abject in previous tours abroad and yet have been given more chances – and those are Vijay (in West Indies), Ashwin (in Australia) and Dhoni (in England and Australia). [Any coincidence that all three play for Chennai Super Kings?]. All three are entitled to a second chance, and all three have done well at home – but if they fail yet again while touring, then some serious questions have to be asked. As it is, purely on merit, Rahane and Ojha are better specialist players than Vijay and Ashwin – it is only Ashwin’s batting and Rahane’s sudden re-categorization as a middle order batsman that prevents the more deserving players from having a secure spot in the 11. And purely on merit, Wriddhiman Saha is a far better keeper than Dhoni (while also a technically more solid bat), and Parthiv Patel a far better Test batsman. Dhoni’s Test captaincy abroad has already proven defensive and bereft of ideas, especially against good batting line-ups. However integral Dhoni might be to our limited overs plans, after a decade in the game he still has to prove that he is good enough to be our no. 1 wicket-keeper batsman in Tests abroad. This series is a test for him as much as for any of the youngsters in the side.