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The lessons India should learn from the South Africa debacle

With the T20 and ODI World Cups on the horizon, it’s time that India re-thinks its cricket leadership and selects players on merit

KL Rahul's stint as ODI captain has been a disaster. (REUTERS)

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South Africa were without their main strike bowler, Anrich Nortje, sidelined by injury. Their spearhead in the Test series, Kagiso Rabada, was rested. The tall Marco Jansen, who was a thorn in India’s flesh, was also rested after the first ODI. Their batting and captaincy have been in transition since the retirement of opener Faf du Plessis, who was the second-highest run-getter in the Indian Premier League (IPL) last year. 

And yet, despite the abundance of Indian limited overs cricket talent on display in the IPL, India got whitewashed 3-0 in the ODI series in South Africa last week. Opener Rohit Sharma and all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja were unavailable, but in the likes of Ruturaj Gaikwad and Deepak Chahar, they had exciting replacements in the squad for those slots. That Chahar got only one game and Gaikwad got none is part of the problem. 

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This was supposed to be the start of India’s buildup to the T20 World Cup in Australia later this year, as well as the 2023 ODI World Cup at home, under a new coach and captain. But team selection and tactics were unimaginative. The series ended in a shambles as a result. Still, it may not be the worst thing going forward, if lessons are learned and corrective steps taken. Here are a few glaring issues for the selectors and team management to deal with.

Rahul’s Poor Captaincy: India started the series well with two strikes by Jasprit Bumrah and one by Ravichandran Ashwin reducing the hosts to 68 for 3 in the 18th over. But a double century stand by Temba Bavuma and Rassie van der Dussen took the game away from India. The pattern was repeated in all three ODIs. KL Rahul, captaining the side in Rohit Sharma’s absence, appeared clueless whenever a big partnership developed. Bavuma and van der Dussen, for instance, were allowed to rebuild the innings with risk-free singles as India maintained a defensive field throughout. 

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Rival skipper Bavuma, on the other hand, posted four fielders within the ring on the offside to curb Rishabh Pant, inducing him to go for a legside hoik. His dismissal for 85 stymied India in the second ODI. We also saw Bavuma gesturing to his bowlers to go for slow off-cutters pitched wide when a late charge by Deepak Chahar looked like giving India a consolation win in the third ODI. The dismissals of Chahar and Bumrah with 10 runs to get gave South Africa a clean sweep. Bavuma was thinking on his feet.

India’s spinners got the blame for lack of penetration in the middle overs, but passive captaincy that didn’t force more risk-taking was also culpable. Rahul’s captaincy has been similarly poor in the IPL where Punjab Kings have finished sixth for two years running under his leadership. His appointment as India’s vice-captain came due to his batting form. But captaincy is a different kettle of fish. Rishabh Pant may be a better deputy for Sharma, having led Delhi Capitals to the IPL playoffs last year. His reckless shot-making doesn’t inspire confidence, but he has what it takes to lead.

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Overcautious Opening: Another problem with Rahul as captain is the effect this has on his batting. He has been scoring at a run a ball in ODIs in the last two years. But his strike rate dropped to around 70 in the South Africa ODI series. A team isn’t likely to win many ODIs when one of its openers plods along at 4 runs an over. 

Rahul is as attractive a batsman as you can get in any form of the game. But as captain, an overblown sense of self-preservation crimps his style. This has been evident in the IPL too, where his strike rate dropped from 146 to 133 after he became captain, and contributed to Punjab Kings languishing near the bottom of the table. Given Rohit Sharma’s susceptibility to injuries, India now really need a rethink on the vice-captainship. KL Rahul clearly isn’t the answer right now.

KL Rahul's batting form has taken a dip.
KL Rahul's batting form has taken a dip.

Lack of Opportunity: Ruturaj Gaikwad was the highest run-getter in last year’s IPL, more than justifying MS Dhoni’s faith in giving him the opener’s slot for Chennai Super Kings alongside Faf du Plessis. That was a stunning achievement for a young player in his second season in a league with stellar batsmen from around the world. The selectors picked Gaikwad for the South Africa ODI series and his debut seemed imminent with Rohit Sharma being absent.

But Rahul, who had been moved to the middle order in the ODI team, decided to promote himself back to the opener’s slot, instead of giving it to Gaikwad. This was a great opportunity for a promising young player to prove his mettle in conditions similar to what India may encounter in Australia for the T20 World Cup. One is reminded of Sourav Ganguly giving up the opener’s position to launch Virender Sehwag’s career. Gaikwad not getting a single game was a stark contrast. It would have helped the team too because the uninhibited youngster would not have allowed part-time off-spinner Aiden Markram get away without being attacked in the powerplay. At the same time, Rahul would have strengthened the middle order. In fact, being a good player of spin, he has a better average and strike rate at No.5 than as an opener for India in ODIs. Instead, the team management sent Venkatesh Iyer to perform an unfamiliar role as finisher at No.6, although the rookie made a mark in the IPL as an opener. The team selection did no justice to either Iyer or Gaikwad.

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Lack of Pace: India’s penchant for sticking with old stalwarts cost them dearly in the Test series. It was the same story in the ODI whitewash where Jasprit Bumrah’s new ball partner was Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who has been bowling at about 130kmph since returning from an injury layoff last year. He was a flop in the T20 World Cup, and had only one good game on a helpful pitch in Jaipur in the subsequent T20 series against New Zealand. Earlier, he managed to get just six wickets in the last IPL season. 

There can be little justification for continuing with Bhuvneshwar Kumar when there are so many promising alternatives. Deepak Chahar struck twice with the new ball in the third ODI and the tall Prasidh Krishna took three wickets. Another option, with Mohammad Shami being rested, was Avesh Khan, who bagged 24 wickets in last year’s IPL, bowling at 140 kmph alongside the South African duo of Rabada and Nortje for Delhi Capitals. 

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Kohli’s Second Wind: Virat Kohli did get a couple of fifties in the ODI series, but he was far from being his domineering self. His strike rate was middling and his inability to go on to a match-winning knock while chasing a target was uncharacteristic. He appears over-committed to the front foot which bowlers have started to exploit by pitching the ball short of a length. The lack of backfoot counterpunching also makes him vulnerable to spinners. 

One of the keys to India’s World Cup campaigns will be Kohli’s return to something like his old form. The best opportunity to do this may be in the coming IPL where he will be playing purely as a batsman with none of the cares of captaincy. He certainly has the class to find a second wind.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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