You commit a mistake the first time, you call it a mistake. You do the same thing again, and again, and again, well you’d rather call it anything but a mistake. The Indian cricket team is the culprit here. After finishing 2021 on a high, fans would have expected the team to carry the momentum and continue its stellar showings on the field. Alas, January 2022 has turned out to be a nightmare, highlighted by the humiliating series defeats to a second string South African side. I am not sure what someone like Ajinkya Rahane did to deserve a ticket to South Africa booked under his name.
A 1-2 loss in the test series against a beatable, rookie South African team serves as a slipper shot to the numero uno side (well, not any more) in the world. Make no excuses about it, India deserves to be grilled by all its critics. Batting has been India’s achilles heel for a while and this series was no different. This is exactly what one means by “not grabbing the opportunity with both hands”. The final frontier remains unconquered!
During Virat Kohli’s tenure as test captain, he was often seen talking about the impact which Ajinkya Rahane created with the bat, whenever the topic of the vice-captain’s form was raised by the press. Well this is not 2016, when Rahane averaged 51 with the bat. His graph has receded rapidly, the end result being a displeasing batting average of 39. This is the fifth time in the last two years that Rahane has averaged below 25 in a bilateral test series, the others being the 2020 series in New Zealand, against England, both home and away, and also the home series against New Zealand.
While I am all for the team management (including the coach and the captain) backing the players, there needs to be a point where the management takes a step back and reviews what it has been doing. When a team’s number 3 and number 5 batters’ prolonged inability to get going is so blatantly visible, why the persistence? What is the purpose of exalting them in front of the press when you clearly know they are no longer meant for the job? The way the team came out and defended Pujara and Rahane after they had scored inconsequential half centuries in the second innings of the Wanderers test match must have left fans unimpressed. Failing to score in a string of innings and then the occasional fifty; there is a very visible, unhealthy pattern and yet, the two of them (Rahane in particular) have managed to hold on to their positions for close to 3 years. If this is the standard set by the team, then I am sorry to say that Indian cricket is heading towards perdition. There is no doubt that team India’s record (especially in test matches) has been phenomenal ever since Virat Kohli took over the reins, however a majority of these victories (particularly those away from home) have come on the back of some lion-hearted performances by the bowlers. The Indian bowlers have consistently picked up 20 wickets. These victories have unfortunately overshadowed the team's fallacies with the bat. The team’s middle order (excluding Pujara’s brilliant showings in Australia) has not fired, which is precisely why they haven’t been able to rack up huge first innings totals.
India has had some great number 5’s in the past. Ajinkya Rahane, despite his longevity at the test level doesn’t make it to that list. Surely, had he played for any other country, it would have been curtains to his test career 2 or 3 years ago. Now come on, Marcus Harris of Australia, in his short career of 13 tests has been dropped thrice, including his omission from the recent Hobart Test. Rahane ended the series with 136 runs at an average of 22.67, thus clearly signaling a need for a change in the team’s batting line-up.
Rahul Dravid should thank his stars, for a reality check has been served right at the start of his tenure as coach. He has entered the picture at an extremely crucial period, with this year and the next being World Cup years. The pressure will be immense and lets hope ‘The Wall’ can handle this the way he handled the bowlers in his time.
ODIs seem to have taken a backseat in the last couple of years (which I hope doesn’t prove to become the format's undoing). The ICC needs to take a good-hard look in the mirror and ask itself this question, “Are we doing gross injustice to this wonderful game of cricket by being so unprofessional and shoddy, especially with the way we have scheduled matches, particularly neglecting one-day cricket, despite knowing very well that 2023 is an ODI world cup year?”. Playing a world cup (irrespective of the format) every year just takes away the “elite nature and exclusiveness” from the event in my opinion.
The Indian team’s display in the ODI series against South Africa can only be described as uninspiring. The middle order continues to be a muddle. The number four spot continues to be the elephant in the room. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar seems to be completely out of sorts and Shardul Thakur just cannot hit the right lengths in this format. Quite surprisingly, South Africa’s rookie spinners out-bowled the experienced pros of India. The fact that this was Ashwin’s first ODI in 5 years is of little concern. To be very honest, I don’t see the point in Ashwin playing limited-overs cricket anymore. What works against him is his batting. He is not going to give those crucial runs down the order on a consistent basis. The team already has someone in the form of Ravindra Jadeja to play that role. Shreyas Iyer too disappointed big time, with his inability to get off the blocks and make an impact. I suppose the coach and the captain have given too much importance to maintaining the “left-right” combination in the middle. Rishabh Pant, for all the talent he possesses, is just not cut out to be India’s permanent No 4. He should only come in at No 4, if India are 323-2 at the end of the 45th over. India was well poised at 118 for 2 when he came into the crease in the 3rd ODI whilst chasing a reasonable score. What was the need to go for that big heave over extra covers? The fact that Rishabh Pant has failed to learn his lesson from the Wanderers test match was conspicuous. The only way he can be made to learn his lesson is by dropping him for a few matches when Rohit Sharma returns, with KL Rahul taking over as Wicket Keeper. I know this line in my article will bring a few frowns in the faces of my readers, but I believe some harsh decisions have to be made at the earliest, purely with the best interests of the team in mind. Quite surprisingly, even Jasprit Bumrah appeared to be toothless with the ball. To put it short, Team India has begun the year in the most dismal fashion.
KL Rahul’s captaincy has left a lot to be asked for. His approach at the top has been baffling. He is a classy batsman, who certainly does not thrive when given the baton. He is just not playing the way he usually does, which is to score runs at a healthy pace. The fact that he seems to have rediscovered the test match batsman in him does augur well for the side. Surely, giving the test captaincy to him will hamper his and the team's performance. So let KL Rahul, the player, remain as he is and let him continue to churn the runs out in the middle, whilst someone else does the job of captaincy.
Now for Virat Kohli. Him giving up the test captaincy has undoubtedly sent shock waves across the country and the entire cricketing fraternity. Colluding with the BCCI has surely made matters worse for him. Virat Kohli openly contradicting Sourav Ganguly and the BCCI top brass is a clear sign of things not being in the right shape. The BCCI is not known for being professional, but the Kohli saga should have been handled in a more cautious manner, because Virat Kohli is undoubtedly the greatest batsman to have played for India (along with being the most successful test captain) and thoroughly deserved better. Well, Indian cricket is a weird entity!
Rohit Sharma seems to be the front runner for the post of test team captain; however the selectors could spring a surprise by not giving him the post. I do not understand why Ravi Ashwin’s name has not merited a mention in all of this. His continued omission from the playing XI in the series in England earlier in 2021 could have been a reason, and also a sign that he was no longer India’s go-to spinner away from home and surely, he would have warmed the bench in the rainbow nation too, had Ravindra Jadeja been on the flight.
To summarize, India need to replace Rahane and Pujara, fix the number 4 spot and find a wicket taking spinner to complement Jadeja in ODIs.
With the T20 World Cup and the 50-over World Cup scheduled for this year and the next, the Indian team under Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma have their work cut out for them; let’s hope they don’t disappoint!