With the World Cup less than a month away, there could be two ways to look at India’s disastrous batting in the ODIs series against South Africa. One, look at it in absolute terms – in which case, India’s top order without Tendulkar, Sehwag and Gambhir was a train-wreck.
Murali Vijay made 18 runs in three innings, and in five innings each Rohit Sharma 49 runs, Yuvraj Singh 91, Suresh Raina 111 and captain MS Dhoni 75. There were bright spots in Yusuf Pathan and Virat Kohli, but this isn’t enough.
With that unbelievable hundred in Centurion, Yusuf looks like the man whose time has come.And if that is so, he should no longer be pushed down to No. 7 while an off-colour Yuvraj continues to bat higher up. The lessons of the 2007 World Cup have been forgotten; India still judge players by their reputation rather than form.
Let’s not kid ourselves with Yuvraj’s bowling, or even Harbhajan Singh’s batting. Yuvraj needs to score runs, Harbhajan needs to strike out batsmen. Anything else they achieve is a bonus. But if they can’t complete their primary functions, they’re doing a disservice to the team.
In this bowler-friendly series, Yuvraj managed more wickets at a better average than Harbhajan, who continues to be seen as India’s No. 1 spinner. A recent TV commercial shows him patenting the doosra. Funnily, it’s hard to remember the last time he took a wicket with or even bowled a doosra in an international match.
India still won two games this series because their tail-enders kept their head in Cape Town and South Africa’s lost theirs in Jo’burg. Beyond these delicately balanced games, South Africa’s pacers dominated India.
Even as his batting form deserts him, Dhoni has been often weak tactically. In the Port Elizabeth ODI which South Africa won, Dhoni allowed JP Duminy and of all people, Johan Botha, easy singles. This is how India bungled their chance to win both the Test and the ODI series in South Africa.
Earlier on this tour in the Cape Town Test, an injured Jacques Kallis came out to bat with India sniffing a historic win. With his injured side, Kallis started reverse-sweeping the spinners. Instead of letting Kallis continue with this risky stroke, Dhoni responded by placing a deep third-man. For an off-spinner.
Some decades are expected to pass before such a field is set again by a team in a winning position. There’s a reason why Zaheer Khan is considered India’s bowling captain. It’s because Dhoni has rarely shown he’s a bowler-friendly captain, who can build the sort of pressure which cause batsmen to self-destruct.
Duminy hit just two fours and a late six in his innings of 72. He was never pressured to attack since singles were served on a platter. At Yahoo! Cricket, we’ve cried ourselves hoarse about Dhoni’s annoying tendency to allow easy singles to the opposition.
There was a time when Bishen Singh Bedi used to applaud the batsmen after being hit for sixes, encouraging them to go for more. These are different times. The Indian captain straightaway puts out boundary riders in the middle overs. It doesn’t matter if the score is 118-5 (like it was in PE) or 700-3. Take away fifty singles if you want, but do not take a boundary.
This, we might humbly suggest, is a flaw in Dhoni’s captaincy. If batsmen want to score fours and sixes, they should be invited to take risks. By placing out-fielders right away, Dhoni allows batsmen to settle down easily – just as Duminy and Botha did.
To his credit, Dhoni showed marginal improvement in this series by placing catchers for spinners. But he didn’t do it when it mattered most.
The glass half-full approach
There’s a second, glass-half-full way to see this performance by India. It’s going to be a batsman-friendly World Cup with flat wickets and fast outfields. The bowlers India will face from Bangladesh, Netherlands and Ireland won’t be half as threatening as Steyn and Morkel, and India should reach the quarter-finals without any trouble.
There’s also the theory of peaking at the right time at a World Cup, saving your best for your last. India’s struggles in difficult conditions in South Africa may lead to an improved show at home.
So may be Tendulkar, Gambhir and Sehwag will stay injury-free and give India great starts. Perhaps Yuvraj will bat like he did some years ago and Harbhajan will take a bagful of wickets. Perhaps Dhoni will for once stop curbing his attacking instincts.
Or are we asking for too much?