The sharp contrast between India’s dream run in 2013 and the present stretch of win-less overseas campaigns is unmistakeable now – for within a period of two months spent gruelling for a seemingly non-existent forlorn victory in South Africa and now in New Zealand, the once buoyant Indian team has been transmogrified into a unit of neophytes struggling to cope with the demands of international cricket.
Needless to say, MS Dhoni‘s boys – who flew into New Zealand a month ago, strongly entertaining hopes of eradicating the strategic blemishes in South Africa – have found it excruciatingly difficult to manoeuvre their home-sick minds into realising that they have substantially unused potential to leave a few victorious footprints on the foreign shores.
With a 40 run defeat in the Auckland Test that resulted after four days of tumult between the bat and the ball, India have now entered their 926th day of wilderness, perpetuated by the absence of an overseas Test victory. India’s last Test win, away from home, came way back in 2011 against the West Indies in Kingston.
Let us analyse the Auckland defeat more closely here, without throwing too many unfounded jibes at the beleaguered Indians for not being able to live up to their status of being one of the top ranked sides in both the longer and shorter formats of the game.
Spinners overseas – a gap yet to be filled
While the usual suspects in weak bowling and spineless batting against the viciously swinging ball may form good enough alibi for generalising the trauma that India routinely faces away from home, the recent tour of South Africa as well as the ongoing one in New Zealand have imparted lessons that are vital enough to reconsider our approach in dissecting India’s latest overseas performances.
While the jury may still be out on whether India has the bowling prowess to decimate oppositions in their own dens, the ongoing stretch of debacles is centred upon something that only a nuanced scrutiny of the two month-long ordeal can reveal.
Even though analysts generally tend to attribute the overwhelming majority of problems in the team to its weak bowling credentials, some other grave, yet allegedly considered ‘minor’ issues have also had their say in making an otherwise strongly built unit vulnerable to the vagaries of overseas inclemency. And the last two months have been strongly representative of the fact that those minority reports can no longer be ignored and need to be highlighted with express urgency.
The transformation in the Indian side, over the last few years, has brought about a number of interesting changes in its paraphernalia – the spot of the wicket-keeper and the all-rounder hogging the limelight for a considerable period of time before MS Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja answered their respective calls of duty with an appreciable degree of conviction.
And it is the establishment of the all rounder’s place in the side that has created a conundrum for the team management. Let’s keep ODIs and T20s out of our present discussion, for the addition of a hail and hearty ‘Sir’ to the team has been nothing short of invaluable for India. In Tests, however, it is a different story.
Consider the changes that the spot occupied by Jadeja in the Test team has undergone in the last ten years – earlier, legends by the name of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh used to jostle for the spinner’s spot when the team wanted to go in with a three pacer-one spinner attack; this tradition slowly gave way to Ravichandran Ashwin virtually holding complete sway over that coveted spot and doing spectacularly well with the bat as well as the spinning ball before venturing out of subcontinent a couple of years ago.
Ashwin’s fallacies and deficiencies came to light and were quickly identified as incorrigible enough to question his place in the team as the lead spinner – this inevitably paved the way for Ravindra Jadeja to stroll into the Test team, on the back of strong ODI performances in the last one year in his kitty.
Casting aside discussion on Jadeja’s hard work and achievements in the recent past, think about the revolutionary change that the Kumble à Bhajji à Ashwin à Jadeja chain has brought about in the dynamics of the Indian team.
While Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh used to be India’s patented wicket takers in all venues on Earth, Ashwin and Jadeja have at best been able to represent themselves as ‘agents of refreshment’ in the Indian bowling, giving the jaded pacers time to refresh themselves after tiring spells.
The question of having someone effective enough, other than the three pacers, to take wickets and break crucial partnerships has practically flown out of the window of the Indian team management at present.
The fourth bowler
The absence of this fourth ‘bowler’ (remember both Ashwin and Jadeja are in the team not just because of their bowling abilities – it has more to do with their batting down the order!), who can take wickets on his own, is hurting India more than anything else in conditions where the pacers, inspite of arresting the early initiative from the opposition, have more or less been ineffective at those strategic phases in the game when the rebuilding occurs and practically throws India out of the contest.
It is at this time that the ‘fourth bowler’ needs to come into the equation, and neither Ashwin nor Jadeja have displayed the tenacity to be that ‘fourth bowler’ in South Africa or New Zealand.
Put this theory in perspective with the manner in which India let the Johannesburg Test slip into a draw in December last year – Ashwin went wicket-less in both innings and rendered the good work done by Shami, Zaheer and Ishant meaningless for the whole match.
A somewhat similar situation arose in Auckland when the Indians had the Kiwis by the scruff of the neck at 30/3 in the first innings and yet let them canter to a gargantuan total of 503. The writing on the wall can now be read clearly – The Indian team is presently playing with three wicket taking bowlers and one part timer who may or may not chip in with a wicket or two on a given day.
The conclusion is obvious – the real change needs to be effected not by making sweeping substitutions in the batting or bowling ranks, but by ensuring that the team is well aware of its own resourcefulness.
Expecting a Jadeja or Ashwin to win games or green and bouncy tracks abroad is nothing short of tomfoolery – they can at best be used to stall the opposition from capitalising on the periodic weariness of the other bowlers.
Include a wicket-taking option in the side
A better strategy would be to incorporate the services of the wily Bhuvneshwar Kumar from the next Test onwards and chose either of the two options given below –
- Sacrifice the fancy ‘spinner’, who rarely spins the ball and takes wickets. (I say this, with all due respect to the invaluable contributions that Jadeja and Ashwin have made with the bat and the ball in the recent days.)
- Else, get rid of a regular batsman (Rohit Sharma may be?) and use Jadeja as a proper all-rounder in the team, i.e. 5 batsmen, 1 all rounder, 1 wicket keeper, and four specialist bowlers.
The presence of Bhuvneshwar Kumar shall effectively ensure that the team has the adequate bowling firepower to challenge resourceful teams in their own backyards – for this fourth bowler can be instrumental in materialising breakthroughs at crucial junctures in the game, which is a phenomenon that is so dearly missing in Indian campaigns these days.
‘We need to capitalise on situations better’, was what Dhoni said in the post match press conference after the Auckland Test – yes captain, you have read the script alright; just the implementation needs to be done and for that a fourth wicket taking bowler is the order of the day.
Who knows, India might well end this disastrous victory-less winter with its first overseas Test win in the last three years!