Experimentation was the key word for the Indians as they prepared for the ODI series against Sri Lanka. While results are important, there was a lot more at stake for Virat Kohli’s team.
With one eye on giving enough rest to the bowlers and the other on building a pool of bowlers for the 2019 World Cup in England, India benched Ravindra Jadeja, Ravi Ashwin, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav for the five-match series.
Despite fielding a second-string attack, the Indians have kept the Sri Lankans on a tight leash over the four matches, restricting the hosts to 216, 236-8, 217-9 and 207.
Seamer Jasprit Bumrah (13 wickets from four ODIs at an economy of 3.72) and spinner Axar Patel (six wickets from four games at 3.85) have kept a lid on scoring with good support from the likes of Hardik Pandya, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav.
Also at least two, maybe three, of the rested senior bowlers can walk into the side anytime, so the bowling stocks look healthy.
Batting (read the middle order) is another matter. The top order of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli is firing on all cylinders, which doesn’t come as a surprise given their form and the low morale of the hosts.
However, what the Indians really needed from the series was solidity in the middle and lower order.
Yuvraj Singh was omitted from the tour, which means his chances of playing the 2019 World Cup are as good as over.
Fellow all-rounder Suresh Raina too has fallen down the pecking order. India need versatility and experience at 5, 6 and 7 and that is still a work in progress.
Wicketkeeper batsman MS Dhoni had found his position in the team under scrutiny following the emergence of young gloveman Rishabh Pant and the presence of experienced heads like Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik in the periphery.
But after three innings against the islanders, Dhoni has silenced all doubters once and for all with unbeaten scores of 45, 67 and 49. His strike rate has decreased but the runs are still flowing and his consistency is more valuable to the team now that his power hitting. As former India opener Virender Sehwag said, there is no one who can replace Dhoni until the 2019 World Cup.
Even so, the middle order doesn’t looked settled. KL Rahul was tried out in the middle as you can’t dislodge Shikhar and Rohit from their spots even with a crowbar.
Jadhav's exclusion means that none of the top 6 bowl...might not hurt India today but can't be the long-term tactic. #SLvIND— Aakash Chopra (@cricketaakash) August 31, 2017
Rahul’s scores of 4, 17 and 7 against a weak Sri Lankan attack mean Ajinkya Rahane – who had a brilliant Test series and was the top scorer of in the ODI series in the West Indies (336 runs in five innings) – will force his way back into the playing XI.
Kedar Jadhav has been a bigger disappointment.
While Rahul is a long-term prospect in all formats, Jadhav has a specific role – a hard-hitting lower order batsman who bowls irritatingly slow spinners in limited overs matches. The casual manner of his dismissals finally caught up with Jadhav and his replacement Manish Pandey made the most of the opportunity, scoring 50 not out off 42 balls in the fourth match.
Pandey and Rahane look better prepared to play in the middle order but they don’t offer much when it comes to bowling, which is something Yuvraj, Raina and Jadhav offer.
Seamer Bhuvneshwar Kumar got the team out of trouble in the second ODI, scoring a fifty while chasing 231 and with the team tottering on 131-7. Ideally, India would have liked someone like a Rahul or Jadhav to make a statement. But you can’t have it all.
India have ticked many boxes in the first four ODIs. Dhoni’s batting and confident glovework have kept the system running smoothly. But the middle and lower order remain a problem area.
The Indian management knows that one of the biggest factors in India’s victorious campaign during the 2011 World Cup was a rock-solid middle order. Sort that out and India are as good as gold.