In what was possibly the most satisfying win on the ODI leg, the Indian cricket team overcame a disastrous start, dug deep to post a competitive total, and later regularly chipped away wickets to bundle out the Kiwis for a fine victory in the final match of the series. A 4-1 series win against a competent New Zealand team (which had the best home Win-Loss record recently) is thoroughly deserved and indeed impressive.What is more, the series was done and dusted in quick time, and with little or no help from India’s champions Jasprit Bumrah and Virat Kohli (the latter for the last 2 matches). What bailed India out of this pickle was India’s depth (more on this shortly).
It was especially pleasing to see the team management take the challenge head on by choosing to bat first on a challenging pitch. As Rohit Sharma stated afterwards, if the series were on the line, they would have chased if they had won the toss. But given that this was a dead rubber, it gave the team a good chance to experiment with the team’s composition and balance. Of course, it was winning the series in good time that gave India the luxury to experiment; taking an unassailable lead against or regularly whitewashing top teams began with Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s reign as ODI skipper.

Before MS Dhoni’s time, India rarely blanked strong opposition (one would have to go back to the ‘80s to see earlier instances of consistent superiority but they were under multiple captains). Virat Kohli’s team has taken the same template and managed to apply it both at home and abroad. The key factor that helped the Indian team to overcome the Kiwis in the final game on Sunday was the team composition, depth and balance. And the team balance will be a crucial factor going into and in the World Cup.

India elected to play Vijay Shankar, an all-rounder, in the place of Kuldeep Yadav, therefore lengthening the batting lineup. As a result, the free-swinging Hardik Pandya came in at number 8. This is not to say that Pandya may not have delivered the same blows from number 7, but fans can easily envisage an alternate reality in which the dismissal of Rayudu in the 44th over would have brought in Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, with 3 pure bowlers to follow.

MS Dhoni

In all probability, the team would have meandered towards a 220 all out. Instead, Rayudu and Jadhav could play with the freedom of knowing that they could take risks given that they had Pandya to follow.

In the batting order, alongside the top 3, the team management seems intent on Dhoni’s presence. Though Dhoni is no longer the batsman who looks good in a #10yearchallenge, he’s still the team’s best batsman in a crisis, even though he didn’t fire on this occasion. This version of Dhoni motors along at ~80 SR and needs a lot of deliveries to come up to speed, which means that his partners need to pick up the slack in these middle-overs-run-milking times. Jadhav and Pandya are some of the fastest scoring batsmen since the 2015 World Cup and their place seems to be justified.

Rayudu, after weathering the initial storm, played the Dhoni role to perfection, but the issue is that he too isn’t too different strike rate wise. Since the 2015 World Cup, Dhoni and Rayudu have been striking it in the low 80s and this approach could cost the team on flat pitches if the top order cannot carry on. Besides, India have been behind the curve in the middle orders. No doubt Dhoni gives the team insurance, but it is prudent to push him down the order in the first innings, unless there is a collapse.

What has been papering over the middle overs meandering is the fantastic bowling, although we’re yet to see if India can defend a low-ish score as Pakistan would regularly do so in the 1990s. Bumrah has been a revelation; Shami has staked a strong claim to the opening bowling slot; Bhuvneshwar is great at the death and the two wrist spinners are taking wickets for fun. The problem? Only one of the 2 fast men can play and this means that the not so reliable Hardik Pandya comes in. Even after 44 ODI innings, he bowls ~7 overs per match, conceding 5.5 runs per over and taking wickets at ~40.

Additionally, among the top 6, only Jadhav bowls, but even his range is limited; discounting his ODI experience, his List A record shows an experience of —hold your breath— only 192 deliveries (translation: he’s only a couple of matches away from being cruelly figured out and finished as an ODI bowler on the big stage) and he’s injury prone to boot. Other players haven’t played enough to cover for these 2 and one hopes that it isn’t a case of too little too late. Dropping a spinner to play a Krunal Pandya or Shankar would have given some indication on contingencies apart from these two, as a three-spinner formula won’t make it beyond Asian shores.

Rohit Sharma, India, Kedar Jadhav, Vijay Shankar

This may sound unnecessarily alarmist after a 4-1 victory but the Indian management will surely consider these scenarios. The 6-1-4 team configuration is really hard on India as only one bowler can afford to have an off day, which is a mighty ask given that England has some of the flattest pitches since the 2015 World Cup (though the effect of an early summer start on this top order remains to be seen).

Remember, this team, despite multiple warnings about the inefficacies of finger spin, steamrolled into the final of the 2017 Champions trophy, and set a date against Pakistan. Cue in the trite “Mauka mauka” sequence—except, the Pakistan team threw caution to the wind and assaulted the Indian finger spinners, practically ending their ODI careers (barring sporadic appearances). Who is to say that this shouldn’t repeat in an all-important knockout match?

Therefore, it would be well worth taking a long, hard look at the team balance, with each configuration bringing in its own tradeoffs, in the remaining few matches. Make no mistake, with 9 group matches and 2 possible knockout matches, this will be a long World cup, and the Indian team has to maintain the balance if it has to be in business at the business end of the tournament.

(PaajivsPunter is an anonymous collaborative blog. They’ve contributed opinion pieces, commentary, satire, analytical features, and long-form narratives on cricket for publications such as Wisden’s The Nightwatchman, Mint, The Hindu, Sportstar, Man’s World, Scroll, and Firstpost.)

First Published: February 4, 2019, 8:51 PM IST