During the recently-concluded ODI series in Australia, India had arguably only two moments of visible discomfort. The first was in Sydney, reduced to 4 for 3 inside the fourth over, the visitors had to rebuild the entire innings from scratch.
The other instance happened in both Sydney and Adelaide, wherein Virat Kohli struggled for options to complete 50 overs. At the SCG, Khaleel Ahmed never really gained any rhythm as he returned to Australia’s shores after a gap of six weeks. At the Adelaide Oval, Mohammed Siraj found conditions tough to handle on his ODI debut.
With Ambati Rayudu bowling only two overs at the SCG before his action was deemed suspect, and Kedar Jadhav sitting out those two matches, India struggled with their fifth bowler’s quota. Quite obviously, the captain missed a certain someone.
“If there is an all-rounder who can chip (in) with a few overs of seam-up, then you don’t necessarily need (another) guy bowling 140 (km/h) as the third (seamer) along with two fast bowlers. As long as you have an all-rounder in the side, you can still strike a good balance around your bowling line-up. But if you don’t have an all-rounder who is firing, then your situation of three fast bowlers comes up,” said Kohli, ahead of the first ODI against New Zealand at McLean Park.
The last time Kohli fielded three pacers (before this Australian tour) with any regularity was during the 2017 Champions Trophy. India began that tournament in Birmingham against Pakistan with Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and Umesh Yadav, alongside Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja. After a shock loss to Sri Lanka, the third pacer (read Umesh) was left out. Playing with only two full-time pacers became a recurring trend thereafter.
There have been only two deviations from the tried and tested method since. The first, a one-off instance was in Sri Lanka (September 2017), wherein Shardul Thakur played as the third seamer. And the second, it started with Pandya’s injury in the Asia Cup until the Adelaide ODI, where he was absent against Australia due to current suspension; a run of eight matches. In all, since September 2017, India have only played nine matches without Pandya, forcing them to opt for a third full-time seamer.
The skipper found a solution for the series’ finale in Melbourne, handing Vijay Shankar his maiden ODI cap and bringing in Jadhav at Rayudu’s expense. It worked to a large extent; Shankar-Jadhav combined for figures of 0-28 as they bowled eight overs in tandem before the main spinners came on. In a way, this tactic disturbed the ‘ideal batting line-up’ Kohli had configured for the first two ODIs – Rayudu at number four and MS Dhoni at five, with Dinesh Karthik to follow at six.
What about India’s ideal bowling combination though?
The aforementioned period – from September 2017 to September 2018 – where India only played with two full-time pacers – coincided with the rise of Pandya as a key component of India’s ODI bowling plans.
Understanding the importance of his role, Pandya slowly worked up his pace, figuring out the fine balance between bowling in subcontinental conditions and overseas, whilst also developing a variation (slower ball). In fact, it was only during the 2018 summer when Pandya brought out a slower yorker, not nearly as perfect as Bumrah’s though. Ahead of the T20I series in England, he worked hard at it, with Rohit Sharma in the nets at Manchester and has used it sparingly in limited-overs cricket since.
Even so, his progression as an all-rounder has been in stages, and it is amply reflected in how Kohli has used him in ODI cricket. Sample this. In 41 ODI innings, Pandya has only bowled a complete spell of ten overs on 11 occasions. On three other occasions, he has bowled his complete quota of overs in rain-curtailed games (discounting one wherein he bowled four overs in a 21-over game) That’s 31.7 per cent, roughly translating to Pandya completing his spells in ODIs only thrice every ten innings.
This makes a strong case for Kohli to have more than five bowling options at his disposal. And it is seen in the 27 ODIs wherein Pandya has bowled six or more overs but not completed his spell. Part-timers, including Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Shreyas Iyer, Jadhav and Kohli himself, have bowled at least one over in 16 out of those 27 instances. That’s a total of 56 overs amongst them – an average of 3.5 overs for part-timers whenever Pandya has failed to complete his quota of ten overs.
In other words, two pacers, two spinners, an all-rounder and a part-timer form the rough template of how India have operated in the ODI arena since 2017. “Three pacers (earlier or in Asia Cup) happened every time Pandya wasn’t available. If you see the strongest sides in the world have two all-rounders at least. Some sides have three. That gives you a lot of bowling options. Unless someone like Shankar doesn’t play, or Pandya doesn’t play, then the three-pacer combination makes sense,” said Kohli.
At the time of writing, the Indian skipper was primed for picking the same combination that worked at the MCG last Friday. Unlike Australia though, New Zealand have a string of all-rounders; even in the absence of injured James Neesham, they have Colin de Grandhomme, Colin Munro and Mitchell Santner to pick from, all of them ready to audition for the World Cup.
It presents a stark contrast to India’s current plight. They are dependent on Shankar, who isn’t a first-choice option, yet must play him to strike balance in their playing eleven. Meanwhile, Pandya still awaits an enquiry and verdict on his suspension. Is it time to question the BCCI and the COA on this delay, before it costs India vital World Cup preparation?