As Virat Kohli smashed back to back hundreds in Nagpur and Ranchi, it looked like the home side led by their 'godly' captain, will complete another series victory and inflict further misery on the hapless Australian side. With three matches to go, the plan was to experiment and be sure about the combinations before the 2019 World Cup because well...you don't fancy the depleted Aussies to come back from there. Do you?
But, as they say, fate is a tricky lady and when you try to figure her out, you get more confused. And, that is exactly what happened with the Indians as the visitors completed a remarkable comeback to take the series 3-2.
After the first two matches, everything looked settled for the home side despite some of the shortcomings. Kohli, as usual, was firing, Jasprit Bumrah was on song and Kuldeep Yadav was taking wickets -- smooth as you like.
With one step inside the room, India looked to seal the series in Mahendra Singh Dhoni's hometown Ranchi but the bowlers, who have been India's main reason of success recently, leaked 313 runs and India got themselves in a tricky chase after losing the first three wickets early. Kohli and Dhoni looked solid but the latter fell but Kohli was going strong and it looked like another masterclass from the chase master but once Kedar Jadhav fell in the 32nd over, it was mostly on Kohli to take the team home but he departed for 123 in the 38th over and the rest followed. Thus, allowing Australia some breathing space but still a mountain to climb in Mohali and New Delhi to take the series.
But, then again, mountains are meant to be climbed and belief can make half a side a force to be reckoned with. And, the visitors had that in ample quantity. They came out firing in the fourth ODI and despite India posting a mammoth 358/9 batting first, the Aussies put on an inspiring performance to take down the home side and level the series. It was a massive dent in the bandwagon and the confidence followed in the next game and India suffered another collapse in the capital as Adam Zampa spun a web around the batsmen in their chase of 273 and finally managed to turn the game in Australia's favour and ultimately win it by 35 runs to complete a sensational comeback series victory.
Ahead of the World Cup, this is a major blow to a team that was being considered almost invincible in England and Wales. But, there are always lessons to be learnt and India and captain Kohli would also like to see it that way.
The experiments made didn't really work out and it became evident that without Hardik Pandya, India will genuinely struggle to find balance in the squad. Pandya's all-round ability was missed despite the presence of Vijay Shankar, Ravindra Jadeja and Kedar Jadhav, who all failed to make a case for themselves. One would argue that Shankar has done fairly good but the bowling of the Tamil Nadu all-rounder remains under the scanner. Despite his heroics in Nagpur, bowling 10 overs from him remains a challenge while Jadeja has failed every time with the bat. Pandya's impending return would give the team immense security in England but the fact that he is nursing injuries and has a season of Indian Premier League to play will keep the management under some pressure... now that none of the all-rounders could prove that he can be replaced in the squad if not available.
Another cause of concern that has been talked about rarely is Bhuvneshwar Kumar's inability to stop runs at the death. Thanks to Bumrah's rise recently, India have not felt the need to look at other end too often but on days when Bumrah sails, the experienced Bhuvneshwar needs to step up and the lack of wickets from the swing bowler and economy at the death will surely worry the management. Relief might come in the form of Mohammed Shami, who has been sensational since his return from injury but with conditions friendly to Bhuvi, India would desperately hope that he returns to form ahead of the mega event in May.
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Then comes the most talked about issue of the middle-muddle. Another series goes by but the same old result followed on Wednesday. India looked to experiment but failed again. Ambati Rayudu, Kohli, KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant... no one clicked for the Men In Blue. Kohli, however, will be back to No.3 one would say but the fact that neither Pant nor Rayudu fired, would again take India back to square one on that spot. But, Rayudu should get more chances because of his performance in New Zealand and the IPL now becomes as important as ever for all the World Cup aspirants because they are running out of time to seal the spot.
The constant collapses also prove why Dhoni's presence in the team is necessary. The ability to soak the pressure and carry the team on his shoulders adds so much balance to a side that is top heavy. Sure...Dhoni is no longer what he used to be. His strike-rate has gone down and he is no longer the finisher he used to be but Dhoni is a winner, a mentor and a rock abd that is exactly what youngsters need around them in tricky situations.
Now comes the little talked about issue -- openers' form. Yes! Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan made big scores in the last two games but before that, they were lacklustre at best. England is a place where they have fired and that would be a respite for the duo but with the batting heavily dependent upon them and Kohli, the starts need to be converted and much like Rayudu, Pant and Rahul, having a good IPL becomes extremely important for the duo to gather some form and take it to England.
The Australia series was supposed to be fine-tuning the combination but ideally, it should have been about playing your best combination ahead of the World Cup. However, Kohli said that the management has XI players in mind, who will take the field against South Africa on June 5 at the Rose Bowl and for now, all we can do is take his word and hope that the 11 are the right ones.