Winning streaks end. No matter how gloriously staggering. No matter how intimidating. No matter how sustained. That’s the nature of sport, if not life itself.
If anything, India’s defeat at the hands of Australia merely puts their unbeaten run in 26 straight bilateral series at home, across all formats, for nearly four years from April 2019, in true perspective. To maintain such dominance – India won 24 of those series, two ended in stalemates – is an extraordinary accomplishment, no matter how familiar with and dominant in home conditions a side might be.
While Rohit Sharma and his men wouldn’t be distraught at the snapping of their unbeaten run, it’s impossible that they won’t look back at the three One-Day Internationals against Australia ruefully. In the year of the World Cup, the temptation to read too much into their 1-2 surrender could be overwhelming, even if the reality is that this result will have no bearing on what unspools in seven months’ time. More than the score line, this series threw up further insights into the kind of work that remains ahead if the Class of 2023 is to emulate Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s squad of 2011 and go all the way.
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The road ahead
India weren’t at full strength – regulars Jasprit Bumrah and Shreyas Iyer were unavailable through injury and one isn’t sure when they will return to contention – but that’s a truism every international sporting side has to come to terms with. There is no gainsaying what the outcome would have been had this duo been part of the playing XI, but India take great pride in the squad depth they have assembled and therefore will not offer that as an excuse for going down to the No. 2-ranked ODI side.
The areas of concern aren’t unfamiliar or suddenly developed. Their vulnerability against high-class left-arm swing, for instance, so ruthlessly exposed in the first two games by Mitchell Starc. Their fallibility on turning tracks when runs have to be accrued through smarts and intelligence, not bravado and big-hitting, a reality that hit home in the decider in Chennai.
For a side that’s often hailed for its batting brilliance and where the bowlers have perforce had to play second fiddle, it must be galling that their primary discipline is the one which needs most work before October.
In the lead-up to the final game at Chepauk, head coach Rahul Dravid had spoken of having narrowed down those in the hunt for the final 15 for the World Cup to ‘17-18 players’. “We are pretty much in a good space, we are pretty clear about the kind of team we want to play,” the former skipper insisted. “Hopefully, we are able to give these guys as many playing opportunities as we can. If in India, great. But even if not in India, it’s just that they get as many opportunities as they can to build a side.”
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As of now, India are scheduled to play just one more ODI series at home before the World Cup, also against Australia sometime in September. Before that, they will play in the Caribbean and possibly in the UAE (the Asia Cup), both places where the surfaces are expected to resemble what could be on offer at the World Cup, even if the weather might not be. Then again, with the World Cup at the start of the Indian season, and not in the February-April window as had been the case in 2011, it’s almost a given that fresh pitches will confront the teams and therefore the purchase for spinners that comes at the end of a long season of wear and tear might not be conspicuously on view.
Batting order picks self
With Shubman Gill cementing his berth as Rohit’s opening partner and KL Rahul finding peace and his mojo in the middle order, his confidence bolstered by the wicket keeping responsibilities bestowed upon him, the batting order almost picks itself. There will be the odd concern over Virat Kohli’s ability, or otherwise, to finish matches – he averages 60 in his last 10 ODI innings, but Wednesday was just the kind of situation in which the Kohli of a couple of years back would have thrived – but at No. 3, he will be the fulcrum around which the batting will revolve, potentially the anchor that will embolden the stroke-makers to express themselves.
Kohli too wasn’t immune, however, to the damage Starc caused in the first two games. In the recent past, India have had huge issues with left-arm swing bowlers who bring the ball back into right-handers, be it Shaheen Shah Afridi, Trent Boult, Reece Topley or even the lesser-known Obed McCoy. Starc is as good as anyone in the world, but given that the World Cup format is an all-play-all round-robin league and nearly every side has an excellent left-arm quick, the drawing board beckons if the middle order isn’t to be saddled with the onerous task of both rebuilding and providing momentum and thrust.
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India’s quest to bolster their batting has taken them to spinners Axar Patel and Washington Sundar to support established all-rounders Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja. Axar is in some ways a Jadeja clone, a left-arm spinner and a left-handed batsman; Washington, who warmed the bench, offers variety by way of off-spin but where does he fit in with Kuldeep Yadav practically guaranteed the lone wrist-spinner’s slot?
And what of poor Suryakumar Yadav? Three first-ball ducks must have changed his outlook about the world and shaken his belief in so many unimaginable ways. Those three zeroes should not define him, but they will always accompany his name as an asterisk. Perhaps, he must wear them as a badge, like Ravi Shastri exhorted his wards after they were shot out for an all-time low 36 in the Adelaide Test in December 2020. After all, it is from the deepest depths of despair that the inspiration to scale the greatest of peaks stems.
The series defeat to Australia must be treated as what it is – an aberration. With the attention now turning to the IPL, the time to regroup and regather forces for an assault on the World Cup is a little way away. It will be time well used by Dravid and his fellow coaches, who will need no reminding that it’s been a decade since India last won a global title.