A few days back spin ace Kuldeep Yadav told the media that he wanted to ‘focus on his batting too’ and will be spending more time in the nets with coach Sanjay Bangar to improve this ability.
Yadav’s statement has implications beyond just a young player’s laudable desire to help his team. It is also an indication perhaps of a piquant ‘hot topic’ in the dressing room approaching the World Cup.
For some while now, India’s tail has failed to register even a handful of runs, leave aside ‘wag’. The last four in the playing XI have contributed little. In modern cricket, that is not just unusual, but could be a handicap.
But is this the main problem for India or is that something else?
Before I address the question, India’s prowess in this format over the past 15-18 months has to be acknowledged. In most bilateral series – home or away – the team has performed quite superbly.
This came through tellingly again while winning two tight games and taking a commanding lead against Australia in the ongoing series, reversing the momentum after losing the T20 matches.
If the final score line reads 5-0, India will nudge ahead of top dogs England in the ICC rankings, which is splendid achievement. However, there is need for caution against misplaced glee at such eventuality.
The No. 1 slot, apart from raising expectations (especially in the World Cup), is not necessarily an index to unassailable superiority. Rankings are suggestive of consistency over a period of time, but not a guarantee to success. They tell a story but can’t foretell a result.
In the Test series against England last year, for instance, top-ranked India lost 4-1. In the just concluded ODI series in the Caribbean, No. 1 England was held to a 2-2 draw (albeit playing away from home) by No. 9 West Indies.
Recent matches across the world in the build-up to the World Cup have shown a higher degree of unpredictability in ODIs than anticipated, showing that the gap between teams has narrowed substantially, never mind the rankings.
Given the rise in number of bilateral contests and the proliferation of T20 leagues, there is greater interaction between players of all countries. This has led to better understanding of mutual strengths and weaknesses of individuals and teams.
If form of the 10 teams in the past few months is any indication, this could be the most open World Cup ever. Whether India has the wherewithal to win and whether the tail-end batting is indeed the bugbear are therefore moot questions.
An affirmative answer to the second is missing the woods for the trees. Even a cursory glance at scorecards of matches in the recent past will highlight that the contribution of bowlers has been immense, exceeding that of batsmen.
Bumrah, Yadav, Chahal and a revitalised Shami ,since his return to the ODI side , have been consistent wicket-takers: in fact game-changers, both at home and away.
That they have been paltry contributors with the bat is fact. But this should not obscure their wonderful showing in their main occupation that has brought the team victory, or close to it, in most matches.
Bowling still remains the unglamorous facet of the sport, which is why they haven’t got accolades they deserve. Rather, it is their lack of runs that has become a talking point. But if anything, India’s been let down largely by the main batsmen in this period.
Apart from Virat Kohli, who, Superman like seems to have Kryptonite in his veins, and Rohit Sharma when in rhythm, the top order has looked wobbly. Dhawan, Rahul, Rayudu, Dhoni, Kartik, Pant, to some extent even Kedar Jadhav, have lacked the consistency which defines a formidable batting unit.
This is the aspect that the team management needs to be concerned about. After a long time, India has a bunch of wicket-taking bowlers. This is the team’s undoubted strength currently. Runs from them should be treated as bonus, but consistent run scoring by the top order is the absolute necessity.
So, while Bangar and chief coach Ravi Shastri must encourage the tail-enders to bat, it is actually the frontline batsmen who should be toiling most in the nets methinks.