There was a period at the start of the Eden Gardens ODI that could’ve held a mirror to the rest of the series. Amidst the frenzy of outdoing each other in batting encounters, there was a brief span in play that took a diversion from the usual narrative that has dictated the three-match series.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Hardik Pandya bowled seven excellent overs between them, tying down two rather explosive England batsmen to a good extent, with swing and seam movement. The added bounce and carry on offer prompted Virat Kohli to spice up his field.
Just four deliveries into the game, he went for a 7-2 off-side placement. His mid-wicket moved to cover, and cover ran up to third slip as Bhuvneshwar looked to lure the batsmen into nicking the ball. A similar pattern was followed in Pandya’s first over – the fielder stationed at short point was sent to man the third slip region. It was a fine test of temperament for Jason Roy and Sam Billings, who either had to curb their instincts and find ways of penetrating the packed off-side or be entirely sure of their shots against the movement, while aiming to play in the vacant mid-wicket and square-leg regions.
The English pair got away unscathed but the outcome of this spell would’ve gladdened Kohli’s heart. That Pandya, a bowling all-rounder and essentially his fifth option in a five-man bowling attack, has shown the tenacity to essay a role with the ball at the start of the innings will help Kohli plan better for the Champions Trophy in England. Hardik also displayed his versatility with the ball with an laudable third spell through the middle overs. He started in the 33rd over and bowled his final six overs on the bounce, conceding just 21 runs and picking up 3 wickets. He got Eoin Morgan with an ordinary delivery, but built up the right sort of pressure on Jos Buttler, to force the wicketkeeper-batsman to go after a delivery that was bowled outside the off-stump.
Yet, the bigger question remains as to what exactly will be Pandya’s role and utility with the ball and how the rest of the bowling attack shapes up around him during the Champions Trophy in England in June.
“All the teams around the world have a fast-bowling all-rounder which gives them a lot of balance. (It) allows you to play that extra batsman I guess. Allows you to still play two spinners, two seamers and if the guy is good enough, he does the job for you.”
“I think he bowled really well in the first and the third game. He bowled really good areas. He was one of the few bowlers who was hitting the deck hard and getting purchase off it.”
Kohli was spot on while discussing Pandya in the post-match presser. England have Ben Stokes in that role where he can double up as a table-turning batsman and a wicket-taking bowler. Australia have options in James Faulkner and Mitchell Marsh for such a role, a fit Chris Morris works for South Africa and James Neesham for New Zealand. Pandya is only six games old in the 50-over format but has shown positive enough signs to be pigeon-holed for a similar role.
But who will make up the rest of the line-up? Amongst the current set of bowlers, Bhuvneshwar Kumar presents a strong case for being a key member of the attack, but a lot depends on what role he is asked to essay. In the last couple of years through the Indian Premier League, Bhuvneshwar has established himself as a canny death-bowling specialist, which means Kohli’s use of the former’s services at the start of the innings will be restricted to a five-over spell, at best.
Intriguingly, in the three games leading up to the final of the 2013 Champions Trophy, India had benefitted from Bhuvneshwar bowling a minimum of eight overs at a stretch. His knack of picking early wickets could be restricted if his spell, like today, is down to just five overs. It’s a catch-22 situation for Kohli – Bhuvneshwar has impressed at the death, a massive grey area for most bowling attacks in the world, but has also been a wicket-taking option if allowed to operate for a longer spell at the start.
For Kohli to shelve the plan of burdening Bhuvneshwar with death-bowling duties, what are his other options there? Jasprit Bumrah showed all through 2016 that he, with his quirky bowling action, can defy batsmen from blazing away at the end. But the start to 2017 hasn’t been along the same lines. The yorkers have turned into low, hit-me full tosses and he’s gone for plentiful at the hands of England batsmen. Bumrah’s series economy rate of 7.86 is primarily down to how leaky he has been in the death overs – 53 runs in 5 overs in Pune, 44 in 4 in Cuttack and 36 in 4 in Kolkata.
If Kohli has to break-up the combination he used against England, he has the likes of Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami to look at.
But, Umesh’s unending dabble with consistency and control makes him an unreliable pick. There was a vast difference in the manner in which he started the New Zealand series in Dharamsala and the England series in Pune, thereby relegating him to the bench in the last two ODIs. In Dharamsala, his pace and control culminated in fine fashion in a spell of 2 for 31 in 8 overs. In Pune, he leaked 63 for 1 wicket in 7 overs. The smaller the margin of error gets for bowlers, the tougher it is going to be for Kohli to give Umesh opportunities to use his pace to good effect.
Shami’s knee surgery and lengthy rehabilitation stint after the 2015 World Cup wasn’t the end of the pacer’s woes. His long-awaited comeback in the Test series in West Indies went well and he continued that form and fitness into the home Test series against New Zealand before being handed a break for the ODI series. However, he lasted only for three Tests against England and was sidelined for the last two with a sore knee. Before the Champions Trophy, India play five Tests (one against Bangladesh, four vs Australia) where the level of Shami’s fitness can be truly determined. Even if he makes it to the squad and eventually the line-up in the mega event, that’d be his first ODI appearance since March 26, 2015.
With spin not expected to play a very big role in English conditions, there’s added pressure on Kohli & Co. to find the right combination. Ravindra Jadeja has the experience and expertise to be India’s all-weather operator with the ball, but Ravichandran Ashwin’s abilities will be truly tested.
Six months and no ODIs already leaves India on a flimsy footing before their title defence. And now, an unsettled bowling attack is doing them no favours.