On February 13th, 2018, India rose to No. 1 in the ICC ODI rankings for the third time in half a year. But this time, unlike the last two, they defeated the top-ranked team in their own backyard and earned the spot, rather than being handed it due to the performances of other teams. India is also the No. 1 ranked Test team, towards the tail-end of their tour of South Africa, despite losing the Test series 2-1. After winning the fourth out of the first five ODIs of the 6-match series at Port Elizabeth, India made sure that they will finish the series at the top – if South Africa had won the match to make it 3-2, they would have retained their No. 1 ranking.
It is hard, at this moment, not to be elated as an Indian fan. An overseas tour that hasn’t ended in total disaster? We aren’t used to such times. But the reason I’m mentioning the No. 1 ranking so often is that it needs to be reiterated that the rankings – in this era of home bullies and skewed competition – are not important. It won’t be important till good teams start winning consistently abroad, and till the contests look more even irrespective of where they are being played.
Therefore, while Virat Kohli’s Indian team deserves credit for a relatively successful tour of South Africa. This was India’s first ever bilateral series win in South Africa, and South Africa’s first bilateral series defeat after winning 7 in a row. Without playing party-pooper, it must be noted that neither of these two teams is perfect and sharing spoils in the two formats has exposed some of their flaws just over a year before the 2019 World Cup in England.
Keeping the World Cup in mind, here are three things that Kohli’s India needs to work on without getting lost in the mist of creating history in a tough cricketing nation. These are the three changes that could result in India entering the 2019 World Cup as overwhelming favorites:
THE DHONI PROBLEM
Indian cricket has a tendency to put reputation above reality and form when it comes to decorated senior players at the twilight of their career. Nobody is going to ask MS Dhoni to quit limited overs cricket, even though it has become increasingly apparent that he isn’t a batting force and finisher anymore. It’s one thing to not be in form or lose a bit of speed, but Dhoni’s entire outlook to batting and attitude has changed with his advanced age – he looks incapable of ending innings with a flourish as he once used to, and ends up consuming many balls to play himself in before trying to cut loose. For an opener, this is fine. But Dhoni is a designated finisher – and currently, he is on the team for his wisdom and prowess behind the stumps. There is no better wicketkeeper in international cricket right now. And with the burden of captaincy not on his shoulders, he has taken over the mantle of the “wise old man” of Indian cricket – forever giving ideas and insights to his bowlers from behind the stumps. But is that enough to allow him to lead the middle order in England next year? I think not – especially with the elevated role of wicketkeepers these days, given that they are first selected for their batting abilities. The Indian Premier League in May could give us a further glimpse of Dhoni’s waning abilities as he is again set to lead CSK, before India’s big tour of England. It’s up to Dhoni to decide if he should carry on, or if a more useful batsman needs to be groomed and given enough cricket to make a difference next year. It might sound brutal, but Kohli hates losing – and Dhoni’s role could well be the difference between wins and narrow losses against stronger teams. Does anyone remember Rishabh Pant?
THAT MIDDLE ORDER
India hasn’t finished well in South Africa in the last ten overs, and the great form of the top 3 has hidden the deficiencies below them. It isn’t just Dhoni’s struggles because it starts as soon as Virat Kohli gets out cheaply – if he ever does. Number 4 is a very important position, and India has struggled to fill it since Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina fell out of contention together. As of now, it’s Ajinkya Rahane playing at 4; yet, he only succeeded in one of the five matches in South Africa. Rahane isn’t a natural in the middle order, and his superb innings in the first ODI might have convinced the management that he is the answer to all their prayers (especially after his brave innings in the third Test match). He isn’t – because as Kohli and Dhoni once said, Rahane can only bat as an opener. He will struggle on slower pitches, as he has in this series again. He can’t rotate the strike like Kohli does. The series started with Kedar Jadhav at 6, but it’s now Shreyas Iyer and Hardik Pandya at 5 and 6 – a very unconvincing middle order for big occasions. If Iyer has to play, it should be at 4 and no lower. Pandya, after that first Test innings, has forgotten that he is in the team as an all-rounder and not a specialist fielder. He has looked irresponsible, stubborn and unwilling to learn from mistakes. Dhoni at 7 further weakens the order. It is currently chaos after Kohli at 3 – whereas perhaps guys like Manish Pandey (a specialist at 4), Shreyas Iyer and Dinesh Karthik should be given more opportunities to prove their mettle. Jadhav isn’t as effective anymore, and it’s up to Kohli to decide if he wants to genuinely plug the gaps. The sixth and final ODI needs to be used as an audition for all the players who should be batting in there instead of Rahane, Pandya, and Dhoni. The combination is wrong right now, and all it needs is a Kohli or Dhawan slump to expose it.
PERFECTING THE BOWLING COMBINATION
The two wrist-spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal have taken ODI cricket by storm in the last few months. Together, they have dismantled teams with batsmen that have forgotten the art of playing old-school, attacking spin-bowling. They have proved their guile and mettle in South Africa, and have a great opportunity to see how effective they can be in English conditions in June. Not playing in the subcontinent will truly test them, and Kohli has to stick with them despite the ups and downs, and despite the likes of Ashwin and Jadeja sitting it out. Jasprit Bumrah leads the pace attack well, but it is the fourth and fifth bowler that India needs to be smart about. Bhuvneshwar Kumar is lethal when conditions suit him, and he is India’s most intelligent bowler. But he has been expensive and inconsistent in the South Africa ODI series so far, despite leading the way in the two Tests he played. In England, he will be ideal, but the management should be flexible enough to rotate him in accordance with the pitches. Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami should be kept in the loop – they will be important when the extra pace is needed against teams who have figured out Bhuvi’s variations. Pandya as the fifth bowler is better than Pandya as the seventh batsman – and that is a balance only he can bridge. He needs to improve fast, and he needs to show more desire than attitude on the field. On reputation of a few knocks, he can only go so far. He is the answer to India’s all-round prayers, yes, but he needs to prove it day in and day out like Ben Stokes and Shakib al Hasan. Because if he is dropped, India will have to fall back on a specialist bowler, further exposing the middle order in the slog overs.