India’s search for a finisher continues. For the first time since November 2014, India won a One Day International (ODI) series against a noteworthy opponent—3-2 against New Zealand, last month. They had won twice against Zimbabwe, in 2015 and 2016, in this period, but it’s the New Zealand series that has helped prevent some uncomfortable questions about ODI captain M.S. Dhoni’s future.
The latest series win was achieved with a second-string bowling attack. Umesh Yadav, Amit Mishra and Axar Patel will be relegated to the bench when R. Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Shami return. Jayant Yadav might not make the squad.
At the same time, the win does mask the fact that India lacks a finisher—a job Dhoni used to do, ending the innings with a flourish or chasing down totals. For some time now, however, he has been reluctant to do this job, mostly because his powers are waning.
In Australia (during the 1-4 loss), he admitted to “not being able to hit big shots easily any more”. In this series, he admitted to “unease of rotating the strike when batting at No.5”.
The need to groom a replacement is urgent. The process started last season when Suresh Raina batted lower down the order against South Africa, but failed. In Australia, Gurkeerat Mann and Rishi Dhawan were selected on the basis of their Indian Premier League (IPL) exploits, but they didn’t succeed.
The next two big ODI events—the 2017 Champions Trophy and 2019 World Cup—will be hosted in England. In view of this, Hardik Pandya’s grooming became important. He was kept out of the Zimbabwe tour in August-September and sent with India A to Australia, where he gained a certain rhythm in bowling under coach Rahul Dravid.
“I am putting the same effort in my bowling as I used to earlier. It is just that I have worked harder on my fitness,” he said after picking 3-31 in the first ODI against New Zealand.
It was the one game in this series where conditions were similar to what he might encounter overseas. The balance he brought to the team’s batting was the bigger highlight, though.
In the next game, in Delhi, he batted at No.7 and took India to the cusp of victory in a close chase of 243—he scored 36 as India fell short by six runs. This—and the failed 261-run chase in Ranchi—highlighted India’s problem. “It would be harsh on him,” said Dhoni after the Delhi loss. “It isn’t easy to bat lower down the order. They will learn from such losses. We need to give them more time.”
“They” also refers to Kedar Jadhav and Manish Pandey, the latter being a bright spark from the loss in Australia in January. The former is the quintessential bits-and-pieces player—he can bat and bowl a bit; he even keeps wickets. While Raina was ill and missed out, Jadhav shone with the ball (3-29 in Mohali, 2-6 at Dharamsala) and finished off the innings in Visakhapatnam with an unbeaten 39 off 37 balls—at one stage, India were struggling at 195-4.
But Pandya and Jadhav need to do more with the bat. “We need to grab whatever opportunity is thrown at us. We need to learn quickly from the opportunities we have missed. That’s what international cricket is all about— delivering when it matters most to the team,” Jadhav had said ahead of the series decider.
This is where Pandey’s poor run of scores—17, 19, 28 not out, 12 and 0—pinches the most. His maiden hundred in Sydney had shown that he could shoulder the responsibility of anchoring the middle order and, indeed, finishing the job. That he was unable to replicate this in home conditions was a disappointment.
The series win over New Zealand has come as a big relief, and it allows the team management breathing time to invest collectively in this trio, even if their individual performances haven’t been as satisfying as they could have been.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.