India lose first ODI by 66 runs

The modern Indian team — ”Byju’s India“, for the duration of this series — parrots “showing intent”, twinned with “being aggressive”, “expressing ourselves” and other such mean-nothing phrases, as articles of faith. And every so often, to paraphrase Disraeli, they end up blinded by the exuberance of their own verbiage.

(In the post match comments, Kohli used “positive cricket” twice and “intent” twice in his answer to a single question).

Today — day 290 after India had last played a one day international — was one such day. Despite a less than optimal playing XI, despite a largely shambolic performance in the field, and despite the Aussies putting up the third-highest one day score ever against India, the tourists had a clear window of opportunity in its chase of 375 in 50 overs on a wicket with spongy bounce, a distinct lack of swing and real pace off the deck.

That opportunity lay in the conservative way the Australian openers, Aaron Finch in particular, played at the start. While David Warner rolled the strike over and cashed in on errant lengths, Finch was way off his pace. With India, for the 13th ODI in a row, failing to take a wicket in the opening powerplay, the Aussie opening pair motored along in third gear, scoring just 51 in the first ten overs despite the field being up, and another 52 in the next ten.

That was the open door India could chase through: If they could play the first twenty overs better and surge into an early lead, they’d have less to do at the backend. In the event, India got off the blocks like a rocket thanks in part to a bizarre 20-run first over from Mitchell Starc that included 8 runs off wides and five off a no ball (plus a four off the resulting free hit). With a nice head of steam, Shikhar Dhawan and Mayank Agarwal powered to 53/0 in the first five, with the southpaw on 20 off 16 deliveries and Mayank on 21 off the same number of balls faced.

And then, having showcased drives and cuts and pulls and intelligent placement, they decided to showcase “intent”. Mayank had in Josh Hazelwood’s second over shimmied to leg to make room and take a fuller length ball from the top of middle stump and loft it inside out over the extra cover boundary in dreamy style. In the bowler’s next, he stepped away again looking for an encore — it was premeditated, Hazelwood read it and banged the ball into the spongy deck. Mayank was still back-pedalling when he made contact, the body weight was going away from the shot and he ended up with a looping top edge to point. 

Virat Kohli came in, got some good deliveries testing him outside off, played a frustrated hook that Adam Zampa at deep backward square spilled; responded with three blinding shots — a pull off his eyebrows, a shimmy down the wicket to cover drive Cummins, and a flicked six played with the fast hands of a professional pickpocket. And then, just like Mayank before him, the Indian captain fell to over-aggression. Kohli came down the track, Hazelwood read him like a mentalist and banged it in short; the attempted pull ended up in the hands of Finch at midwicket. For all the frenetic shot-making through his brief stay, Kohli was out for just 21 off 21 balls faced and India were in a hole — which only got deeper when, two balls later, Hazelwood predictably bounced Shreyas Iyer, who as predictably got into a tangle with head down and bat poking at the sky for a top edge to the keeper. And deeper still when KL Rahul, who started off in fine touch, managed to get himself out to a Zampa full toss that he hit back to the bowler straight to Smith.

Ironically, it was the quintessential aggressor, Hardik Pandya, who demonstrated what “showing intent” really should be about. From ball one, he was shaping to play shots to every ball — but he was willing to bail when the ball deserved respect. In his first 50, off just 31 balls, 36 runs came off just seven shots (three fours and four sixes); the other 24 deliveries produced only 14. The bowling, with Marcus Stoinis in the sixth bowler’s role covering for the two spinners Zampa and Maxwell, got tighter and Pandya pulled his horns — and his ego — in, and was willing to knock singles around till a bowler (again, Starc as it turned out, in the 29th over) erred in line and allowed him to reel off two fours and a three.

At the other end, Shikhar Dhawan put a horrific day in the field behind him and showed what they mean when they talk of the “value of experience”. He was cruising along on 30 off 24 at the end of 11; with three top wickets back in the shed, he pulled back and allowed first Rahul, then Pandya, to make the running while he tapped the ball around and settled down to take the game deep.

Till the 30th over, India was in control of the chase, if you ignore the wickets lost. And they seemed to have the ideal partnership going, with Dhawan motoring along in about third gear and Pandya switching gears at will. But in a big chase, wickets matter; the knowledge that there is just one more wicket keeping Australia away from the tail weighs on the batsmen in the middle. And the weight of the runs still to get begins to weigh heavier with every passing over.

In the end, that told. Though India at the end of 30 overs had a 39 run advantage over Australia, the home side had made 205 in the last 20. That meant the Dhawan-Pandya duo had to go harder, take more risks just when the ball was getting softer and the pace was coming off. That pressure told: Dhawan torn between the need to bat deep and the equally pressing need to push the scoring rate along, ended up in two minds and chipped Zampa to mid off (74 off 86). And in Zampa’s next over Pandya (90 off 76), who knew going big against spin was the only game left to him, lashed out at a ball Zampa held back a touch and spun a bit more, and picked out long on to effectively end the game. 

You’ve read 1046 words till this point, but all you really need is this run comparison chart below — it tells the whole story. The rest — Jadeja’s fairly pedestrian 25 off 37, and a fun and games partnership between Saini and Shami, is just footnotes.

(NB: India scored 64/0 between overs 21-30; the text is not showing thanks to some quirk in the program.)

AUSTRALIA’S innings was built around three quality knocks. David Warner, at the top of the order, played a hand of 69 off 76 characterised by an educated eye for the quick single. Glen Maxwell produced a destructive 45 off 19 (with a let off courtesy Dhawan, and five fours and three sixes courtesy the batsman’s ability to send balls to parts of the field in ways that defied high school geometry). And Steve Smith played an innings that was actually two innings: There were the shots he actually played, and the interstitial soliloquies on how he could have played that shot better, or gotten a bit more elevation to convert the four he got to the six he thought he should have got.

It was brilliant to watch — and it was the key to the Australian innings. After a scratchy, run a ball start (19 off 20 at the end of 33 overs), he suddenly switched from first gear to fourth, taking five fours off six balls from Jadeja and Shami between the 37th and 38th overs to kickstart a frenetic phase that saw him race to a century in just 66 balls. When he was out to the third ball of the 50th over, Smith had made nearly half (105 of 216) the runs scored while he was in the middle, at a T20-ish strike rate of a tick under 160. 

Not crediting Finch for his anchoring 114 off 124 might seem churlish; arguing that the Aussie captain’s innings was a drag on the overall batting effort  might be an unpopular opinion — particularly when you consider that India paid a price for playing too many shots too early. So yes, Finch did partner Warner in a 156-run opening stand that set the innings up nicely; he did help Smith add another 108 for the second wicket. And he ensured that the Indian bowlers didn’t break through too early, too hard. That said, Finch’s innings seen in isolation did dampen the momentum particularly of the opening stand (Warner 69 off 76; Finch 73 off 92) largely thanks to his inability to roll the strike over with the sort of well placed singles that give Warner his bread and his butter. 

Those numbers tell you a story: Finch played 23 deliveries more than Warner for just four runs more. (In the interest of fairness, Finch did pick up the pace during the second wicket stand). Hence the criticism — not for what he scored, but for the runs he didn’t let his partner score. Another day, without that barnstorming century from Smith and the electric display by Maxwell, the same knock would have been criticised for taking the wind out of the innings; there is no reason that criticism cannot hold just because his team won. 

A few tangential points:

  1. God knows what the issue is, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen international-standard fielders (from both sides) muff up so badly in the field. And it was not just the lights either, because India muffed catches before the lights had come on. Rust? The teams have been practising — energetically, we are told, so not sure where the rust comes from.

2. India has a problem with team balance. Hardik showed today why he gets to play even as a pure batsman — but that reduces India to four regular bowlers and one all-rounder, with absolutely no way to cover for a bowler(s) having an off day. On the day, only Shami had an economy rate under 6; the normally reliable Bumrah is yet to come to terms with the right length for these conditions, and went for 7.3 and Chahal, on whom the team depends both for parsimony and wickets, went for 8.9 for his single wicket. (Against that, three of Australia’s bowlers — Hazelwood, Zampa and Stoinis — went under 6 RPO and Cummins was only marginally more expensive at 6.5; only Starc [8 rpo] and Maxwell [8.25] proved expensive.)

3. The lack of a sixth bowling option stood out during the Indian chase, when Pandya began brutalising the two spinners. Australia had the canny medium pace of Stoinis to fall back on; the bowler ended up with a spell of 25 runs in six overs (with 20 dot balls, most of them at a point in the game when Pandya was going gangbusters, and that allowed Finch to take the pressure off his spinners.

NB: Stoinis came on in the 9th over, with Pandya in rampage mode, and his first spell was 5-0-19-0. At the other end, Zampa went for 9 (added to 11 in the 18th over), Maxwell for 23 (18 and 5) in his two overs, and Starc for 10 (3 and 7) in his two overs.

4. Which brings up Navdeep Saini, who gave up 83 runs for his one wicket — from the first ball he bowled, commentators kept mentioning some “back spasm” the bowler is struggling with. IF whatever Saini is struggling with is debilitating, why was he on the park? And with games coming thick and fast, what is India’s Plan B if Saini is not fully fit?

5. Speaking of fitness, what is the management’s policy when it comes to injury management? On the one hand, they are ok carrying an injured Wriddhiman Saha to Australia and letting him work on his fitness issues while on tour. The same management leave out both Ishant Sharma and Rohit Sharma (the latter arguably India’s best white ball player) on the argument that they are injured, and there is not enough time to get them to Australia and through quarantine before the Tests. And then they play a below par Saini. “Lack of clarity”, Kohli commented in a rare public show of dissent; lack of commonsense, he could have added.

PS: Am on a quick trip to Chennai starting tomorrow, so I’m likely to miss the second and possibly the third ODIs. Regular service resumes from the T20s on.