Neither sword nor shield

Dhoni now has no choice but to select three seamers from among Ishant, Bhuvneshwar, Shami, Umesh and an inexperienced Stuart Binny during the World Cup. Should Ishant or Ravindra Jadeja not recover from injury, Mohit Sharma, who features in the tri-series, could be drafted into the squad. But how well is he going to fare? Can Axar Patel be relied on outside the subcontinent? Who will take responsibility in critical situations? There are too many questions and not enough answers, writes Shreedutta Chidananda.

Mitchell Starc may have been the overarching story from India’s first match of the Carlton Mid ODI series, but his performance put into stark relief the visiting side’s struggles in the area. What India would give for a relentless, forceful, attacking bowler like that! As the World Cup swims into view and teams fine-tune their plans and capabilities, M. S. Dhoni will be acutely aware of a glaring weakness.

India’s bowling has become not so much a weapon to wound opponents with but an unreliable piece of armour to be carefully protected from enemy fire.

During the 2011 World Cup, India had Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel, Harbhajan Singh, and Yuvraj Singh to call on. Zaheer finished as the tournament’s joint-highest wicket-taker (21); Harbhajan conceded less than four and a half an over; Munaf bowled with control throughout, including in the final; and Yuvraj, to go with all his runs, claimed 15 scalps and managed to swing games in his side’s favour.

In Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and R. Ashwin, India can boast of no such match-winners in unfamiliar conditions. In the seven and a half years since his debut, Ishant has played only 75 ODIs, with the management at one point of the opinion that he was better off used as a Tests-only bowler. In the recently-concluded Test series, he averaged 48.22 and for large parts — this is rather worrying — looked India’s best bowler.

Umesh Yadav is one of seven players in the squad with fewer than 50 ODIs under his belt. But he is veritably wayward. In the Sydney Test, the last game he played before the Carlton Mid series, he went for 185 runs from 30 overs in his two innings.

Mohammed Shami is perhaps the most frustrating of India’s pacemen. He bowls good wicket-taking deliveries but surrenders their impact with a string of loose, wide offerings before and after. A boundary ball seems mandatory every over, just when India appears to have tightened the screws.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar has control, but relies on swing to take wickets. He struggled with injury in the Test series and enjoyed little success when conditions weren’t amenable to his craft. At his pace, Bhuvneshwar can appear toothless without swing, and the one-day series will offer a better preview of his World Cup fortunes.

The naivete and the ineptitude of India’s seamers is finely captured by proceedings in the third Test. Australia had been reduced to 216 for five on the opening day in Melbourne, with Brad Haddin — who had averaged 8.36 in his seven previous Test matches — at the wicket. That evening and the following morning, India bowled bouncers at him, an approach that had worked previously. But once that failed to yield results, the bowlers appeared to have run out of ideas and merely waited for the opponent to make mistakes. Australia eventually made 530, killing off all chances of India winning the match.

In the first hour of the Test, Ishant and Umesh had bowled commendably until Shami — brought on first change — relieved all pressure by offering Chris Rogers easy boundaries. Shami dismissed the same batsman later, but considerable damage had been done.

Similar mishaps had occurred in Brisbane during the second Test, when on the third day Mitchell Johnson ran amok. Varun Aaron, for all his sweat and fury, showed a decided lack of composure, as Umesh and he let the match irredeemably drift.

The Vidarbha bowler averaged 49.81 for the series and Aaron (who will not feature at the World Cup) 72.40. Statistically, Shami was India’s best, with 15 wickets at 35.80, but in crunch situations, his control let him down.

Ashwin’s is a slightly different case. It must be said that away from home he does not carry the same threat that he does in India, but he showed in Sydney that he could tie one end up. Only India did not possess a reliable wicket-taking option at the other. The off-spinner was initially reluctant to criticise his colleagues, but expressed his annoyance in Sydney that he wasn’t getting enough help.

All in all, India failed to take 20 Australian wickets even once in the series, a feature of the team’s Test matches overseas. Why have even simple, seemingly obvious operations been botched?

“We have to be a lot more disciplined than what we are,” the bowling coach Bharat Arun admitted in Sydney. “There is a lot of work that needs to be done on that. But there have been occasions where we have shown discipline. Obviously we are working on that for them to be more consistent and disciplined. Every kind of wicket that you bowl on is different. You have got to adjust to the wicket before you do that, and that’s exactly what we are working on.” Except that India did not seem to improve from one Test to the next.

“The reason we have done well at home is we have taken 20 wickets,” Virat Kohli said. “The spinners have bowled really well. The fast bowlers know how to bowl in home conditions with reverse-swing. They have a fair idea of the areas they have to bowl in. But when we come out, they get too excited with the bounce.”

Kohli admitted that India’s bowlers could learn a thing or two from Josh Hazlewood, who, despite being new, bowled with remarkable accuracy.

“It might be a mixture of a lot of things,” was Kohli’s analysis of what was wrong. “The skill is there. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t be playing for India. That’s a given...Those crucial moments after tea, at the end of a day’s play, we need to strike and we haven’t been able to. It’s to do with wanting to bowl that second and third spell for the team, and that’s something we need to consistently work on, tell the guys to step up and bowl their hearts out for the team eventually.”

Dhoni now has no choice but to select three seamers from among Ishant, Bhuvneshwar, Shami, Umesh and an inexperienced Stuart Binny during the World Cup. Should Ishant or Ravindra Jadeja not recover from injury, Mohit Sharma, who features in the tri-series, could be drafted into the squad.

But how well is he going to fare? Can Axar Patel be relied on outside the subcontinent? Who will take responsibility in critical situations? There are too many questions and not enough answers.