Lost in African safari Indian cricket seeks core leadership team

Miriam Makeba, a South African singer and civil rights activist, describes her homeland as “Africa has its mysteries and even a wise man cannot understand them. But a wise man respects them”.

Winning the Test series in South Africa may have been an easier task than coming out victorious in the ODI format. Test matches are longer, so the better team has to make better decisions for a longer period of time and thus has a better chance of winning. And for most cricketing reasons, the Indian Test team seemed to be technically and tactically superior compared to the hosts. Beyond this point, there were far too many mysteries that cropped up as India won the first test but lost the series. They then played 3 ODI games and lost them all.

No one knows how a champion-like unit with red balls suddenly looked like a bunch of survivors in the African wilderness. In fact, it was hard to believe how no one in their top six batters in the ODI leg could reach the 3-digit figure!

Concern should always be accompanied by context. India is 5th on the World Test Championship points list and needs to win most of their remaining tests to give themselves a chance to qualify for the final. So if they host Sri Lanka later in February, they have to be ruthless. Even that is just myopic dressing. The shift in leadership will be most felt in the five-day game.

If KL Rahul wants to stay in the lead of the whites, he will have huge shoes to fill. Mastery in Test cricket often comes down to choosing the right men for the jobs. The dynamics on the field will come sooner or later. The fact that Rahul is an opener and that is the toughest hitting assignment in a test match means he is sure to score some low scores. Therefore, his biggest challenge will be to compartmentalize his punching power and captaincy.

He will need all the support he can get from Rishabh Pant, who can no longer just be an outsider on the team. Management has shown enough confidence in him to just be a player who changes the game every now and then. He must be more than that. His flamboyance must be formed and increased within the team. When the wicket-keeper is aware and has a clear voice in the flank, the captain on the field feels empowered.

The recurring problem in the middle order needs to be looked at. There needs to be a change of staff as it is certain that we have already seen the best of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane.

As for 50-over cricket, since the next World Cup is in their own backyard, you would think India is not far from finding their best XI. Rohit Sharma has been working hard to improve his fitness, and he should be able to resume his leading role in both limited-overs formats against the West Indies from next month.

Shikhar Dhawan’s return to ODIs is a huge positive. In the upcoming ODI matches that India plays, three against the West Indies at home and three away in England, they will have to decide whether they want Dhawan, Rahul, Rohit and Kohli in their top four. Shreyas Iyer will and must get a longer rope.

But while doing this, they have to keep an eye on the rest like Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan and Ruturaj Gaikwad and keep them ready if their services are needed at any given time. There should be a discussion about their individual roles. In South Africa, in all three ODIs, it was only Dhawan who carried some form of intent out of the top three, and that cannot be the case in today’s ODI cricket.

In the absence of Hardik Pandya, Rishabh Pant is still India’s biggest X-factor. However, Pandya could be looking at a longer road of revival with the evolution of Shardul Thakur and Deepak Chahar, both of whom have shown enough batting intelligence to be slotted as the designated bowling all-rounder. Then there’s Venkatesh Iyer, who will only get better as he gets more playing time.

If Yuzvendra Chahal wants to be part of the bigger picture of things, then he would have to play continuously to turn the wrist, as most cricket disciplines are about rhythm. With Ravichandran Ashwin already in the mix, if you add Ravindra Jadeja to that list, the spin bowling division seems set in the ODIs.

At best, Jasprit Bumrah looks half as good compared to his peak form. Even if he’s out of shape, that’s still not India’s main concern. Bumrah must believe he has a bigger role to play in the set-up of ODI. He is the undisputed veteran of that tempo cartel. Going back to Bhuvneshwar Kumar shouldn’t be the only resort. Therefore, Bumrah’s role is to help Indian cricket raise the curtain and ensure that the likes of Mohammad Siraj, Prasidh Krishna and Avesh Khan are given enough playing time and learning to get them ready to play.

The shortest format is perhaps the trickiest of all. Not just because there’s a World Cup in October, but because it’s in Australia. To think that the upcoming bigger and better Indian Premier League (IPL) will be a perfect platform from which to pick that team will be too simple an idea to live with, but unfortunately it will be. That’s the kind of world we live in.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are those of the author and have nothing to do with the charter or the views of OTV. OTV assumes no responsibility or liability for them.)

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