Australia is a vast sunburnt country with vast sunburnt cricket fields. In such huge spaces, it is said, it is hard to hide any weakness. Every small one gets magnified. India’s in limited-overs cricket is the obvious one: their batsmen don’t bowl, and their bowlers can’t bat.
With at least five men inside the ring for 40 overs in ODIs, it gets really difficult to get away with just five bowlers on true flat pitches. You can’t afford for even one of them to have an off day, and it was obvious as soon as Navdeep Saini was introduced that Australia were looking to take down at least two of the three bowlers who follow the opening act. This was only the second time in their ODI history that India bowled out four of their bowlers despite an economy rate of worse than a run a ball. Mohammed Shami was within a couple of making it all five. Not only does it put the lesser bowlers under extra pressure, batsmen can eliminate risks against your wicket-taking bowlers.
Gambhir: No sixth bowler hurting India
Everyone leaked, but Virat Kohli had no one to go to. If Yuzvendra Chahal had limped off the field five minutes sooner, Kohli himself might have had to bowl. This is an abject poverty from the days of Sachin Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag to Suresh Raina and Yuvraj to even Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya. Two events have been highly unfortunate for India: the loss of Pandya the bowler and Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s fitness. Jadhav can’t be seen as an option for the next World Cup with his advancing years and diminishing fitness.
The abundance of one-dimensional players has forced India to split their ultra-successful double-wristspin combination of Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav. With none of the bowlers able to handle the bat, you couldn’t have all mugs from 7 through 11. So back came Ravindra Jadeja, who has held his own but is not an attacking option in the middle overs. Had Kumar been available, India could have pushed on with attacking options with the ball. Or in today’s scenario, even risked Jadeja batting at No. 6, but it becomes too much of a gamble if the best No. 7 available is Shardul Thakur.
In terms of squad selection, India have tried their best to fill the breach. They have tried Vijay Shankar, Shivam Dube and Krunal Pandya, but none of them can claim to seal a spot based on one of the two suits. Not yet at any rate. Especially not in ODIs.
It is just incredible that none of India’s batsmen over the last few years bowls. One school of thought is that this shift has coincided with the emergence of the whanger the sidearm, the dogthrower. The device has many names, but the throwdowns it gives is great practice for batsmen. Batsmen love to hone their instincts based on repetition from the throwdowns. It is not physically possible for any human or set of humans to provide such repetitions at the high pace that the sidearm can provide.
India travel with two throwdown specialists. Kohli is a big fan and credits these throwdown experts for developing his and his team-mates’ instincts against high pace and bounce. The flip side of it, though, is that batsmen bat against specialist bowlers for a while and then spend a lot of time against the sidearm. That leaves hardly a net for the part-timers to bowl in. Gone are the days when the Tendulkars of the world would bat, take a rest and then line up to bowl in one of the nets. That net now belongs to the throwdowns experts.
However, this school of thought can be countered. These batsmen just can’t bowl. Shikhar Dhawan, Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant, KL Rahul, Ambati Rayudu. They are either too ordinary or possess illegal actions. Rohit Sharma injures himself when he bowls.
This counter is borne out by the domestic stats. Search for players who have, over the last four years, averaged 40 or above with the bat and 40 or below with the ball, and have a decent body of work against decent opposition, and you draw up a list of seven: Axar Patel, Dube, Shankar, Govinda Poddar, B Aparajith, Manoj Tiwary and Hanuma Vihari. None of their future batsmen features here. Axar is similar to Jadeja, but a lesser batsman. Aparajith has been picked for A teams, but the selectors haven’t considered him worth of the next push. Tiwary is not the future.
Vihari is an interesting name: batting average of 50, close to four overs bowled per match, and a wicket every second game. It is unlikely India will replace an Iyer with him, but in theory he ticks boxes: specialist batsman, bats in the middle order, and bowls almost every game. If you ask a little less of them, a recently made star pops up: Rahul Tewatia, who averages 37 with the bat and 25 with the ball. He could be the No. 7 with Pandya and Jadeja pushed up to 5 and 6.
However, the point remains: India are not exactly spoilt for choice. Young batsmen are probably going too far to avoid niggles. These are desperate times, and might call for desperate measures. You can’t just wait for Pandya to get better and start bowling. He might be an injury risk even when he starts bowling.
You have to start pushing guys in the nets to bowl after each batting stint. Mayank Agarwal is someone you can fashion, but despite being able to bowl, he has sent down just five overs in List A cricket. More importantly, a message has to go out to the Gills, the Iyers, the Pandeys: if you want to bat for India, you have to bowl five overs in every List A game and spend a lot of time on it in the nets. A dropped Rahul went back to domestic cricket and made it a point to keep wicket so he could make an international comeback. That’s what India need one of these batsmen to do.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo