Opinion | Expect more churn, Indian side is still unstable
Even if Hong Kong’s was a one-off spunky performance and some key players (Rahul, Bumrah, Pandya) were missing, India’s middle order looked worryingly vulnerable, the bowling not penetrative enough. The World Cup may be more than nine months away, but the squad looks far from settled.
India’s tepid performance in the opening match against Hong Kong would have yanked Virat Kohli away from whatever else he was doing to ponder on what else/more needs to be done with his team to get it in prime form leading into the World Cup.
The Indian skipper has been rested for the Asia Cup, a subject of much rancour between the BCCI and the tournament’s TV broadcasters about not having the world’s stellar participating, the last of which has not been heard surely.
On the field of play, given Kohli’s fabulous record, his absence also weakens the Indian team. Yet who would have anticipated the royal scare given by Hong Kong, ranked 18th in ODIs! But for their inexperience, it is fair to say Hong Kong may have won easily.
Just as one sensed captain Rohit Sharma (on the field) and coach Ravi Shastri (in the dressing room) getting the jitters, the two openers fell after a mammoth partnership, the innings faded away and Hong Kong’s dream ended.
India’s place in the last four was assured, irrespective of the result against Pakistan on Wednesday. But the manner of victory couldn’t have stymied grave questions about the form and composition of the side arising in Kohli’s mind.
Big gaps to fill
Even if Hong Kong’s was a one-off spunky performance and some key players (Rahul, Bumrah, Pandya) were missing, India’s middle order looked worryingly vulnerable, the bowling not penetrative enough. The World Cup may be more than nine months away, but the Indian squad looks far from settled.
There have been several changes in the ODI team since the Champions Trophy last year (Shami, Ashwin, Jadeja, Rahane are out, for instance) when it appeared India had struck the right combination. More churn now looks inevitable.
Some part of this was expected. Players can lose form, others may struggle with fitness or injury. But Kohli’s bigger concern will be that the team has not been able to maintain a consistent winning rhythm over a period of time, especially playing overseas.
This cost India the Champions Trophy last year and the No.1 (ODI) ranking after losing to England this year. The World Cup too will be played in England, so there is need to find players who are not only hugely successful in making runs or taking wickets at home, but elsewhere too.
Opportunity to test
I reckon that five-six slots are still open in the squad. In that sense, the Asia Cup affords opportunity to Kohli, Shastri and the selectors for assessing form and adaptability of players and zeroing in on those who are versatile, tenacious and ambitious.
While the tournament is being played in the sub-continent, for India’s players this is still unfamiliar territory. Moreover, a multi-country tournament throws up challenges quite different from those in a bilateral series.
All attention has obviously been focused on the India-Pakistan clash. Interestingly and cleverly, the itinerary has been structured to allow possibly three matches between the arch-rivals, which kind of makes up for the times the two countries have defaulted playing each other!
(As an aside, I am a proponent of regular sporting ties between India and Pakistan. If diplomatic and trade relations can continue, why make sport, which in fact can facilitate better relations, suffer? But that’s another story.)
But while winning against Pakistan (I write this on the eve of Wednesday’s game) is paramount and poses the stiffest challenge – for cricketing and sentimental reasons -- it is the title that India want badly to set the World Cup campaign rolling on a positive note.
Beating Pakistan but not bringing the Asia Cup to India (Bangladesh and Afghanistan are no pushovers going by their performances yet) would be more grist to jingoism, but in the larger context, a pyrrhic achievement.
(The author is a senior cricket analyst and his views are personal)
First Published: Sep 20, 2018 08:55:43