When Shardul Thakur was picked ahead of Mohammed Shami in India’s Asia Cup 2023 opener against Pakistan, the decision may have raised eyebrows but was in line with the team management’s penchant of late, seeking lower-order runs.
Though the move didn’t pay off on that occasion, with Thakur dismissed for a run-a-ball three even as India was eyeing the 300-run mark, captain Rohit Sharma made it amply clear during the World Cup squad announcement that it was a strategy the team was going to persist with.
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“It’s both the bowling depth and batting depth. We need to create that depth and that is something we found has been lacking in our squad for the last few years. We just wanted to make sure we got that batting depth somehow. When you talk about depth of batting, obviously the No. 8 and 9 positions become quite crucial.”
“We saw in the first game in the Asia Cup here also where we fell a little short with the bat at the backend. It tells you how important that No. 8, 9, 10, 11 job is. Not just to come out and bowl the opposition out but also to contribute with the bat. It can make a huge difference,” he said.
“We ended up getting 265. Another 10-15 runs, if we had played 50 overs, things could have been different. That is the winning and losing margin – 10 to 15 runs. We’ve spoken to the bowlers about how important their role is going to be, come the World Cup, and how they need to put their hand up to do the job for the team with the bat as well,” he added.
Though at the outset it may seem that the bowlers have been short-changed, there is also merit to the argument that they may have brought it upon themselves. During the 2019 World Cup, India most often did the job with just five bowlers, while also having the luxury of relying on Kedar Jadhav’s off-spin at times. This meant that the management had the wiggle room to field six specialist batters, excluding Hardik Pandya.
But plagued by a plethora of injuries and workload management becoming the watchword of an increasingly packed cricket schedule, India has preferred to use six bowlers in One-Day Internationals of late. The batters too haven’t stepped up consistently, making it seemingly inconceivable to have four specialist bowlers in the line-up.
A case in point is the fact that arguably the three best pacers in the country – Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj – are yet to feature in an ODI together. The game against Pakistan was yet another pointer that this may remain a pipedream.
While the rationale behind sacrificing a bowling option for lower-order runs may seem acceptable, what evades logic is the management’s approach.
Thakur has featured in an ODI eleven which includes Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja only seven times, has bowled just 33.3 overs out of a possible 70 while completing his full quota once, and has batted three times for 20 runs.
Similarly, Axar, who is likely to juggle the No. 8 spot with Thakur depending on conditions, has played with Pandya and Jadeja only three times, scoring 32 runs and bowling 13 overs while never completing his full complement of 10.
Jadeja and Axar offer similar skillsets with their left-arm spin, and the duo have only featured in eight ODIs together since the latter’s debut in 2014. Axar has batted just four times in those games, scoring 33 runs at an average of 8.25 and picking eight wickets in 50 overs.
Moreover, Thakur and Axar average less than 19 with the bat, face less than 13 balls per innings in ODIs and seldom complete their full quota of overs. While Axar has bowled 10 overs in less than half of the matches he has played, Thakur has done so in only seven games out of 40.
At this point, the move to shore up the batting by compromising on the bowling front seems to be driven more by the fear of the unknown than by sure-footed decision-making.
Sure, India’s batting has let the team down of late. Since November 2022, India has been dismissed for less than 220 four times and has lost three of those games. But on the other hand, a case can be made for including an additional pacer as the team has banked on the quicks to deliver more often than spinners in the current World Cup cycle, even at home.
While the spinners have 64 scalps in 405.5 overs, the pacers have yielded 117 wickets in 584.4 overs since the end of the 2019 World Cup.
In hoping to fix a troubled batting line-up by squeezing in a half-baked fail-safe decision, the team management may just end up throwing a spanner in what could be a well-oiled bowling machinery.
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