Captains have a use-by date. The current Indian side is badly in need of new ideas and different stimulation; when the opposition has racked up nearly 1,300 runs in four ODI innings, it's not all down to flat pitches and wayward bowling.” —Ian Chappell, former Australian captain.
It is no secret that Chappell is not a fan of Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni. But now, even die-hard Dhoni fans are grudging about two things: his captaincy and his batting/finishing lacking the old spark.
In Australia, barring the last one-dayer at Sydney that India won and prevented a 5-0 washout at the hands of the hosts, the 'poor bowling, poor batting' lament kept echoing throughout the series.
The reasons for the drubbing were clear: uninspiring captaincy, below par fielding and the absence of strong middle/lower order.
The last match, however, gave India a silver lining—the hard-hitting batsman Manish Pandey (who scored a century) and medium-pacer Jasprit Bumrah (who had best bowling figures among Indian bowlers; 2 wickets for 40 runs in 10 overs).
Dhoni has been a reluctant pusher of green horns. He prefers the tried and tested. Yet, injuries, desperation and, probably, pressure from selectors made him try newcomers. The top four batsmen—Rohit Sharma (man of the series), Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane—did score runs. But the bowling department was a mess.
After the Sydney win, Dhoni sent confusing signals: “We wanted to pick bowlers who hit the deck hard, we decided even if they go for runs, you still have guys who bowl fast. This is perhaps the only time where our set of bowlers was faster than Australia's. That's the positive. But, at the same time, you can't only rely on pace. You need to close down overs well. You can't keep giving away 15- or 20-run overs.”
This is a team in which the majority of the players, barring the uncapped ones, had spent three months in Australia just nine months ago. The conditions were not daunting—batting tracks with no steep bounce. Add to that a far-from-threatening Aussie bowling attack.
No wonder that India's bowling is being panned. Consider this: India's no. 1 bowler—off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin—was benched after two matches. His bowling figures read as: 2 matches, 128 runs, 2 wickets, economy rate of 6.73. Though Dhoni had described Ashwin as a 'thinking bowler', the offie never got the chance to do the thinking and make a come back.
The stats of other experienced bowlers were nothing worth writing home about: Ishant Sharma (on his third tour Down Under): 4 matches, 250 runs, 9 wickets, economy rate of 6.25.
Umesh Yadav: 5 matches, 345 runs, 7 wickets, economy rate of 7.21. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar (whose comeback ended sans swing and with another injury): 2 matches, 111 runs, 0 wickets, economy rate of 6.52.
Ravindra Jadeja (picked instead of Ashwin because of his superior fielding abilities): 5 matches, 257 runs, 3 wickets, economy rate of 5.35.
Two new bowlers blooded on the tour—left arm medium pacer Barinder Sran and right arm medium pacer Rishi Dhawan. But they failed to make an impact. Former Indian batsman Sanjay Manjrekar described Dhawan as a “slightly better bowler than Virat Kohli”! Team director Ravi Shastri, however, backed his boys. “I think it is a huge learning curve, no shame in the way they played, not withstanding results. To win a game one or two bowlers can't do the job; need to bowl as a team,” said Shastri, after the Melbourne loss.
Former Indian medium-pacer Venkatesh Prasad, who was bowling coach of Team India, was not as lenient as Shastri: “Bowlers are just not using their experience. Ishant Sharma should know where and how to bowl by now. You just cannot bowl without a plan.” Lalchand Rajput, Team India's manager-cum-coach to Australia during the 2007-08 tour, too, slammed the bowlers. “The close games are always crucial,” he says. “Even after putting up a score of 300-plus, we are not winning. It is largely because of our bowling not being consistent. Bowlers like Sharma and Yadav have toured Australia before, you cannot say they need time to learn now.”
Prasad lambasts the team management and the cricket board for creating an “illusion” for the bowling department during the recent South Africa tour of India. “The performances at home on tailor-made wickets seemed to be a desperate attempt to show people that the team had achieved something,” he says.
Rajput echoes the view: “When your lead bowler Ashwin cannot find place in the playing eleven in Australia, what does that show? That you are making wickets to suit your bowling strength alone. Where has making rank turners taken you? Nowhere!” Meanwhile, Dhoni raised a grouse that Indian domestic cricket was not supplying Team India “finished products”. Not all agree, though. Many experts say the rookies have shared the dressing room with biggies in the IPL, and are not unused to pressure conditions.
“What is a finished product?” asks Prasad. “It is nothing but mental maturity; it is not much about the technical aspect.”
The Indian team management has somehow refused to acknowledge the weakness, when it comes to One-Day Internationals. The harsh reality of Dhoni's fading abilities as a leader and a finisher adds to woes. (Dhoni averaged 17.2 in the series.)
This Dhoni is not the skipper who gave the last over to Joginder Sharma in the final of the 2007 T20 World Cup, which India won. In the past ten ODIs under Dhoni's captaincy, India lost seven. That includes the recent series loss at home to South Africa, in which lack of finishers and poor death bowling were exposed.
In Canberra, Dhoni came in at no. 4, with India chasing 71 runs off 81 balls. His dismissal on a duck triggered an embarrassing collapse. “It was my wicket [that led to defeat]... because that specifically is my role in the team... to make sure we finish off the game well,” he said during the post-match news conference.
Clearly, old memories are back to haunt. India lacks finishers. After Rahane at five, the Indian tail starts, and it is unable to wag.
Despite the poor results in Australia, which BCCI secretary Anurag Thakur described as “a matter of concern”, the board has reposed faith in Dhoni—at least till the ICC World Twenty20 championship gets over in March-April.
With a series against Sri Lanka coming up at home before that, Dhoni, Shastri and selectors have little time to find solutions. Tailor-made wickets certainly cannot be one of them.