Dhoni reinforces my prediction on four-specialist bowlers strategy: SOS Yuvraj beckons

Just a few days back, I had endorsed the strategy of playing just four specialist bowlers in a bid to bolster Indian cricket’s original strength, i.e. batting. Today, after yet another embarrassing defeat against England in the Tri-series, which kept India winless and knocked them out of the tournament, skipper MS Dhoni echoed these very sentiments at the post-match press conference. (ESPNCricinfo: Dhoni hints at four-bowler strategy for World Cup). The idea, while irrelevant as far as the Tri-series tournament is concerned, may still fit into the category of ‘better late than never’ in the context of the all important World Cup, and comes with its own share of challenges.

Dhoni has almost quoted me by appointing Stuart Binny as the unofficial replacement for the struggling Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and with Ishant Sharma’s knee troubles, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav appear to be frontline choices for partnering Binny. I would pick Akshar Patel over Ravindra Jadeja as the single specialist spinner in the team, but knowing Dhoni’s fascination for Sir, we’ll just have to wait and watch how that selection pans out.

Which brings me back to the point I highlighted in my previous post – we can talk all we want about strengthening our batting, but the 15-man squad has very little additional batting firepower. Only if ALL the batsmen are played do we have seven specialist batsmen, with Binny and Akshar at Nos. 8 and 9 respectively. We are definitely a batsman short in the 15, but there might yet be a backdoor solution to this epoch problem.

With several of our bowlers dropping like nine-pins due to injury and related woes, it presents an opportunity to set right the mistake of taking our batting for granted while picking the 15-man probables. With a four-specialist bowler strategy more or less confirmed, the excess bowling baggage we are carrying can be neatly trimmed, citing injury concerns, and a batsman/all-rounder brought on board in lieu. 

With the need of beefing up our part-timer bowling strength at an all-time high, the buck, in my opinion, once again stops at Yuvraj Singh, whose big-match temperament and recent form with bat and ball make him a potentially indispensable asset in the middle order, who can also ‘pie-chuck’ a significant portion of the fifth-bowler duties quite effectively. Since time immemorial (or at least since I became cricket aware), the Indian batting line-up has been strong, at least on paper (even when we crumbled in reality). That sacrosanct awareness has been disturbed during this Tri-series, and the single addition of the lanky Punjabi south-paw will restore the on-paper aspect to a large extent, irrespective of how he performs.

If miraculously included, Yuvraj should replace Ambati Rayudu in the XI, and not the current top-of-mind villain , Shikhar Dhawan. Rayudu has displayed tremendous heart in attempting his best while he has been regularly fed to the wolves (Read, pushed into an unfamiliar batting position in seamer-friendly conditions against marauding pacers, to protect a certain jewel in our crown), but his best is simply not good enough, at this level, in these conditions. Even if he came off on a couple of occasions, he is the least likely to strike fear into the hearts of the opposition, something India desperately need to after the recent embarrassments.

For all the solidity Ajinkya Rahane has displayed at the top, I would still prefer him in the middle order, with Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma opening. Dhawan’s 30-odd at Perth today raises hopes that he is coming into some semblance of form at the right time, and he is the closest we have to Virendar Sehwag at the top, so he stays, for me. Virat Kohli must come in at No.3, irrespective of when a wicket falls; ‘protecting’ our best batsman is sending out quite a wrong message, and Kohli must get back to where he made most of his runs. Yuvraj, Rahane and Suresh Raina at 4, 5 and 6 form a rock-solid middle-order, the kind that could send a shiver down the spine of bowlers manning the middle overs. Dhoni at 7, Binny at 8  and one of our spinners at 9, makes it quite a formidable batting line-up, on the famous paper of course. To conclude by quoting Derozio, our ‘day of glory past’ is just an SOS away..but is anyone dialing? 

India’s World Cup 15: Dhoni’s last stand, selectors’ safe approach, and a shocker

Ending weeks of speculation, the selectors yesterday announced the 15-man Indian squad for the 2015 World Cup. While the possible permutations and combinations were like manna from heaven for cricket columnists and bloggers like yours truly, the final squad had ‘obvious’ written all over it. Well, almost.

The batting line-up, as expected, was not tampered with at all. Speculations were rife about Murali Vijay forcing his way into the team on the back of fabulous Test-form, but the powers-that-be ultimately decided not to consider form in one format of the game for entry into another. Fair enough, but this begs the question as to why he was included in the 30 in the first place? If established ODI credentials have more weightage than current form, then Yuvraj Singh might have been a much better option in the original 30. The inclusion was allegedly made to have a back-up opening option, if required. Between then and now, the need for a back-up opener has been highlighted several times, with Shikhar Dhawan looking woefully out of place on Australian pitches. On the other hand, Vijay has hardly placed a foot wrong, defending stodgily and attacking as and when required, to make a statement of reliability at the top. Therefore, irrespective of this being a viable selection or not, Vijay has reason to be disappointed.

The continued faith in Ravindra Jadeja and Shikhar Dhawan, the latter not exactly the apple of the eye of a certain Virat Kohli, indicates that Dhoni has had a significant influence on team selection, in what could possibly be the enigmatic captain’s last stand in even the shorter format of the game. With Jadeja not 100% fit, and Yuvraj in red-hot form in domestic cricket, there was a case for a from-the-heart decision which could have even found favor with the head, but yet again, the non-inclusion has Dhoni’s signature scrawled all over it. While it’s too early to comment on the correctness of the decision, it would be unforgivable if one the three spinners, a number which I feel is a luxury given that not more than one is expected to make it to the playing XI, ends up a tourist on the Australian safari. In that very likely scenario, not having a usable option would be a cardinal sin.
Dhoni’s faith in himself, and the corresponding faith of selectors in him, is also underlined by the fact that the squad does not have a reserve wicket-keeper, with Rayudu filling in as the pseudo glovesman. While I was perfectly happy with a similar scenario four years ago, an older and more injury-prone Dhoni should probably have had a Sanju Samson or Wriddhiman Saha as the back-up keeper. Dhoni has always made bold decisions, and this one will rank right up there; whether he is lauded or flayed for it, only time will tell.
As with the batsmen, the selectors have played safe when picking bowlers. Both Jadeja and Ashwin have had a horrendous year as far as ODIs are concerned, even in home conditions, but including them is of course, a safe choice. Akshar deserves a spot; an extraordinary 2014 across the shorter and shortest formats of the game makes him the number 1 ODI spinner in the country, on current form, and I would back him to be a consistent inclusion in the final XI, also taking into account his clean hitting skills down the order. I keep coming back to the unnecessary three-spinner luxury; Akshar on merit, and one out of Ashwin or Jadeja, or reputation, may have been the better choice.
A man largely overlooked, but in my opinion, the unluckiest among the 15 who were shown the door, is Dhawal Kulkarni. The Mumbaikar was exceptional in the Australian Quadrangular ODI series between the ODI teams of India, Australia and South Africa, emerging as the top wicket-taker, and continued in the same vein in ensuing domestic List A competitions, including the experimental Sri Lanka series, India’s final ODI engagement before the WC selection. 
Finally the shocker – Stuart Binny. With all due respect to his alleged talent and Herculean but unseen (except perhaps by Bangladesh on an international platform) abilities, Binny has done little of note this season, especially on the List A scene. Even in England, aided by conditions perfectly suited for his dibbly dobblers, Binny was mediocre, putting it mildly. Perhaps he could spring a surprise by ending up as India’s MVP of the tournament, and then we could go crazy over the absolutely inspired foresight, but till that glorious moment arrives, shocker is the best I can do. 

Problems aplenty for India as World Cup inches closer, and proposal for a desperate experiment

As I write this, Shikhar Dhawan has customarily guided Mitchell Starc to first slip for yet another cheap dismissal in the ongoing Tri-series. More than the disappointment of India’s apparent inability in stringing together something of substance at the top, it is the increasing sense of inevitability of failure which is a grave concern, as India sets itself up for title defence of the greatest tournament in limited overs cricket. Bowling was always expected to be India’s weaker link in the expedition, but when batting starts to compete for the same title, the inevitability complex starts assuming alarming proportions. 

Murali Vijay’s non inclusion in the 15-man probables list distributes opening responsibilities among the troika of Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, and Dhawan, of course. The problem gets more complicated because Rahane, while looking fluent, has not yet racked up assuring numbers beside his name in the shorter format. The Mumbaikar would probably be more comfortable at No.4, but Dhawan’s inconsistency at the top may see him opening on a regular basis during the World Cup. Rohit has impressed in his only appearance in the Tri-series, and should be a certainty for the other opener’s slot.

Yet another worrying development is Virat Kohli’s demotion to the No. 4 spot, with his regular No. 3 slot being occupied by Ambati Rayudu. Whether the move is to ‘protect’ India’s most promising batsman from the juice in the pitch during the early overs, or to compensate for the missing behemoth Yuvraj Singh in the middle order, it certainly is more than a tad unfair on Rayudu, who is not cut out for the one-down slot, even in domestic conditions. Kohli himself has not taken to his new position with glee, with a 100% failure rate thus far.

The reliable (at least in the shorter and shortest formats) Suresh Raina is a solid factor in the lower middle order while Stuart Binny, despite a good showing in India’s nightmarish outing against England, does not give me much assurance; not yet, at least. Compounding India’s woes is captain MS Dhoni, for not displaying his famous penchant of staying till the end, in victory or defeat. The skipper has got in and got out, thereby denying the team a good 20-30 runs extra which he generates at the end, a figure which can easily determine the difference between victory and defeat.

We could opine out hearts out, but the truth is that, in the batting department, we cannot do much more than hope. There is not much scope to chop and change in the batting line-up, because the selection has been made under the assumption that batting is not going to be a concern at all. In other words, the selectors have taken India’s batting for granted, and focused their efforts on providing more variety in the bowling, a move which could backfire in more ways than one.

There are plenty of options in the bowling department, (not even getting into the argument on how many of these options will actually come good on any given day) but the greatest mistake, in my opinion (if I may ignore the Binny inclusion), is the unnecessary luxury of carrying three spinners into the tournament, one of whom should have been omitted in favour of an extra batsman. In an effort to provide more cover for our weakness, our strength, which has been largely taken for granted, is now tottering uncomfortable close to the edge. The bowling continues to be inconsistent, despite the additional resources, in a paradox which now leaves India unsure in both departments, with the WC almost upon us.

Call me old fashioned, but I would like India revert to a batting-focused attack, with bowling playing a sidekick, as opposed to the current plan of elevating it to hero status, something for which the firepower is clearly lacking. Yuvraj would have been a wonderful addition to have in the middle order, but since that option is not viable anymore (barring last minute injury concerns), I propose bringing out all the batting guns at our disposal, expect that some of them fire, and hope the bowling is good enough to survive.

My openers would be Rohit and Rahane, who have looked decidedly more assured than the behind-the-wickets catching practice provider Dhawan. However, rather than discarding the southpaw altogether, I would have him in at No.3, given that Kohli-protection looks set to stay. Whatever little chance of success Dhawan has, will be once the pitch eases out and the ball softens a bit, a phenomenon displayed briefly during the controversial Indian second innings of the Brisbane Test in the recently concluded Border Gavaskar trophy. Nos. 4, 5, 6 and 7 will be Kohli, Rayudu, Raina and Dhoni. I would risk playing Binny in place of Bhuvneshwar; both of them are similar bowlers, and with the latter not exactly setting the ODI stage ablaze with his performances, I would opt for the better batsman, at least on paper. In the event of Binny looking like a fish out of the water with the ball, Bhuvi or one of the other quicks can replace him, without the top-7 being disturbed.

I will have the one specialist spinner at No.9; with all of our options decent with the bat, this would give India an extremely strong batting line-up, of course, yet again on paper. Ishant Sharma will be a certainty in my XI, with either Umesh Yadav or Mohammed Shami rounding off. This would leave us in a familiar 4 specialist bower scenario (assuming Binny can be termed a specialist), with Rohit, Raina and Kohli combining as the 5th bowler.

To recapitulate, this would be an XI I would like to test out: Rohit, Rahane, Dhawan, Kohli, Rayudu, Raina, Dhoni, Binny/Bhuvneshwar, Akshar/Ashwin/Jadeja, Shami/Umesh, Ishant. India should target chasing whenever they win the toss, and back themselves to run down anything; if they bat first, 350 should be targeted every time (yes, Aussie pitches and all). This is by no means a guaranteed solution. It is at best, a desperate experiment. However, given the current context, these are desperate times. ‘If it ain’t broke, there is no need to mend it’ is no longer an adage we can go along with, because the current Indian ODI machinery looks pretty much conked out. Successful or not, a last ditch overhaul would be imperative.