Virat Kohli has recently completed 50 ODI’s as skipper of India. The results are mighty impressive. They’ve won every 4 out of 5 ODI’s with Kohli as skipper. They have been dominant at home, had a great run in Champions Trophy, and treated RSA like a school team in RSA’s own backyard. Bowlers have finally figured out how to take wickets during the middle portions of the game, Captain possesses two skilled slog-over bowlers and a very confident all-rounder who brings a lot of balance to the side.
However, the side is far from perfect and this article highlights some of the areas that India needs to improve on before the World Cup. Normal wisdom suggests that you would want every player to have 30-50 ODI’s under their belt prior to World Cup but I disagree. Good players will shine regardless. New players bring a bit of a mystery factor and new levels of energy for high-octane tournaments. India’s IPL tournament prepares these players for big stages and selectors shouldn’t put too much emphasis on experience factor.
India’s top 3 are arguably collectively biggest batting threat in one-day cricket but as the final of the Champions Trophy demonstrated if these three go cheaply, India’s lower middle doesn’t look capable of mastering tricky chases. To be honest, the top 3 have enjoyed the best of batting conditions and hogged the majority of the strike preventing the lower middle order from getting valuable match experience.
Number 4 and 5 in one-day line-ups are still up for grabs. KL Rahul is still trying to figure out his role in ODI set-up. Raina is a fighter but he is technically limited.
The tail is a bigger worry. With the exception of Bhuvneshwar, India has three genuine number 11 batsmen. In this era of batting deep, India over-relies on the top 7 for the bulk of heavy lifting.
Elephant in the room
Any sane selection committee would have ensured Dhoni is collecting his pension by now but he is guaranteed a spot in final XI for the World Cup. Given his street smartness, surprisingly he has been a constant no-show in recent past and has frustrated fans on several occasion by ignoring the match situation in trying to bat himself in.
India’s reluctance of dealing firmly with fading stars puts inexperienced selection panel in a bit of a quandary. As IPL and other tournaments showed, there are potentially 2-3 very strong wicket-keeping candidates available should Team Management desire them.
The entire Indian cricket fraternity worships Dhoni and you can be assured the wise old wizard will retire on his own terms.
6th Bowling Options
When fully fit, India is fortunate to have 5 genuine wicket-taking options but there will be times when 1 or 2 of these bowlers will have an off day and a 6th option will come in handy. Suresh Raina is the only certified pie-chucker in the side but India can use someone who is a bit more reliable with the ball as a 6th bowling option. Krunal Pandya offers that option to India but it’s hard to see conservative Indian panel considering someone like Krunal Pandya to fill this important role.
Backup Bowling Options
The current backup options haven’t been that impressive. I can’t imagine the Kauls, the Sirajs, the Thakurs, and the Unadkats of winning games on their own. Agreed, they have been up against brutal batting orders on very flat pitches but none of them has demonstrated that X-factor that bowlers need in this era of flat pitches, mighty bats and smaller grounds. Umesh Yadav bowled some vicious spells in IPL but lacks that consistency. Shami has fitness and personal issues to deal with. Varun Aaron is not even on selector’s radar. Under present system, Mavi, Nagarkoti, Khalil and Rajpoot will probably have to put on impressive performances for 12-18 months to get a look in.
The purpose of this article is not to paint an overly negative or depressing picture of the current state. Like India, all other teams are also facing their own unique set of challenges. England lacks world class bowlers and will be under massive pressure to #BringItHome. Australia has serious re-building to do after Sandpapergate disaster. RSA is dealing with ABD’s retirement and the return of Amla to a more mortal form. NZ is like Belgium (Football Team) of cricket. A guaranteed semi-final pick but lack that firepower to go all the way. Pakistan and WI possess several match winners but do blow hot and cold. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have serious issues of their own.
Here is hoping team management and selectors are paying attention to few of these issues and ensuring India goes well-prepared into the mighty important tournament.
I remember the year 1989 very well. Gavaskar had retired a couple of years earlier and Kapil had lost pace. We were losing to Pakistan more often than not in ODIs. The 1983 World Cup and 1985 Benson & Hedges Cup twin wins were things of the past. Crickets fans were feeling directionless. Then came the tour to Pakistan , where a baby-faced 16 year old stole the hearts of the entire nation with his brave batting against the Pakistani quicks. Watching cricket was a pleasure once again for Indians ... and this euphoria lasted for more than fifteen years. In the 1990s, when Tendulkar batted, the whole nation " batted " through him.
In 1991, a tall, thin guy, with flailing arms while bowling , burst onto the scene and bowled really quick ... and India had its first genuine fast bowler, Srinath. The year 1996 saw an elegant left-hander score a century on test debut at Lords. This was followed by another century in the next test match. While this was happening, another young man with impeccable technique missed his centuries by a few runs in both those tests. Indian cricket fans were brimming with excitement once again at the emergence of these twin gems.
Be it a wristy Hyderabadi scoring 3 centuries in his first three tests in 1984-85, a bespectacled Kumble taking a 4-fer in in Sharjah in 1991, Zaheer and Yuvraj sparkling in Nairobi in 2000, a dashing Sehwag scoring 105 in South Africa on test debut in 2001 ... these memories will stay with us for ever. More than these moments and memories, every time a special talent emerged, it gave us reasons to watch cricket for the next few years.
No one will forget the dabaang innings of 148, that a long-haired keeper-batsman played in 2005 against Pakistan ... and a new star was born. No matter what one feels today, every Indian cricket fan felt a connection with that young man, which would stay with us till the time he won us the 2011 World Cup as captain.
Then came Kohli, who would go on to become one of the biggest superstars. entertaining us in all three formats with his spectacular batsmanship. Rohit, Rahane, Pujara, Dhawan, Ashwin, Jadeja, Shami, Umesh, Bumrah, Bhuvi etc. ... all of them inspired interest among certain sections of fans. Seeing a young Shami debut, combining genuine pace with reverse swing to floor the West Indians in 2013, was very exciting. Fast bowling fans just loved it when young Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron bowled at 150 kph.
Sports survive and grow in stature and popularity because of superstars and stars. Thirty-one years have passed but people still talk about and remember Maradona winning the football world cup. Fans need to find a connection with individual players. They are happy when that person does well and sad when he fails. They realize their own sporting dreams through him or her. Cricket is facing competition from other sports in India like never before and needs star players more than ever.
In Indian cricket, we are recently seeing a trend of trying to introduce thirty-plus players as a matter of priority, especially the batters and keepers . Youngsters are getting chances but only when an " elderly " is not good enough or is injured or fails the yo-yo test or rotation policy demands more players. If the current ODI batting line-up makes it to the 2019 World Cup then we will have six batters who are 30+. Dhoni 38, Karthick 34, Jadhav 34, Dhawan 33, Rohit 32, Kohli 30.
I am not suggesting that thirty plus players should all be be dropped or not given fresh chances. But, there should be a mix of experience and youth. Too many youngsters mean lack of experience and too many older players mean lack of new direction and dwindling fan interest. Moreover, there is no point in promoting mediocrity when it comes to selecting fresh players.
We have seen young spinners and all-rounders being introduced and backed though ... and the result is there for all to see. Be it the wrist-spin twins, Kuldeep and Chahal, or the charismatic all-rounder Hardik Pandya, they have given new direction and new energy to our team.
I hope that some talented youngsters are allowed to flourish in the batting, keeping and fast-bowling departments too. If they receive the same backing as the young spinners and all-rounders are getting, they will also do well . KL Rahul, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant, Prithvi Shaw, Vijay Shankar, Karun Nair, Md. Siraj, Basil Thampi, Avesh Khan, Kamlesh Nagarkoti etc. etc. are waiting.
It never was and and never is about choosing the top performers in domestic cricket or the well known names. It is always about spotting and backing the players who have the potential to achieve something extra at international level from now on.