Not every player has a clear-cut role in the team. At least not always.
You have your top order batsmen, wicketkeeper, fast bowlers and frontline spinners. All-rounders play a fluid role, scoring runs and picking up wickets. But all of that happens only when everything falls into place and there are enough players in the squad to do the primary job of scoring runs and picking up wickets consistently.
Sometimes, you get players who offer a bit more than what it says on the cover. And in the eagerness to maximise that bonus, the team misses the bigger picture.
Let’s start with Peter Handscomb. In the Australian camp, Handscomb’s wicketkeeping skills are suddenly in focus. Regular gloveman Matthew Wade is having a horrendous time in the subcontinent, averaging 22 with the bat in eight Tests in Asia.
His twin failures – five and four – in the first Test against Bangladesh have forced the Aussies to think about Handscomb as a wicketkeeper. The Victorian has kept wickets, but mainly in limited overs matches. Keeping in Test matches is a highly specialised job and hardly ever done by ‘part timers’. AB de Villiers kept wickets for South Africa in 24 Tests but the workload proved too much for him. That was an exception that proved the rule.
There are many batsmen who take up the wicketkeeping job in limited overs cricket, but hardly at all in Tests because there is no place to hide in the five-day format. You get five days to ponder over mistakes, which is not great if you are doing a short-term job.
If Handscomb ends up as a Test wicketkeeper and also does a decent job, there is a high probability of it taking his energies away from the primary task.
It’s a fate that befell Irfan Pathan. The Indian left-armer started off as a pace bowler who could bat a bit. But as his career wore on, it emerged Pathan was a quality batsman.
He was tried out as a Test opener against Sri Lanka in 2005, against England in 2006 – both at home – and in Australia in 2008. By that time, his bowling had lost its sting while his batting remained reliable. But the Indian team couldn’t continue with the new-look Pathan, which was its own creation, and Pathan fell out of favour.
And not to forget Kedar Jadhav. The India lower order batsman is in the team as a power hitter. Then Virat Kohli and India discovered his menacingly slow off spin which proved difficult to negotiate and almost always produced a wicket or two. That’s very good but it has taken the focus away from his main role – that of a batsman.
Of late, his batting has veered of track, with his fifty yesterday against Sri Lanka coming after seven attempts. A lack of application with the bat and in the field became too obvious to ignore and he was benched in the fourth ODI.
He was back for the final match but in place of KL Rahul, who only had three ODI failures to his name after a spectacular run in Tests. Which means Jadhav’s awkward off-spin kept out a proper batsman and a good fielder from the XI.
Handling such ‘bonus’ talents can prove to be very tricky. Such stop-gap arrangements almost never turn into long-term solutions. All they end up doing is stop the team management from trying out a ‘proper’ option.
Handscomb should not be burdened with wicketkeeping in Tests. Jadhav should be assessed as a lower order batsman first. But chances are, teams will continue to be enamoured by what ‘else’ they offer and, possibly, unsettle the team balance.
India are the latest team to put clear targets in place as far as fitness is concerned for international players. Those who don’t meet them are simply not welcome.
With the focus of almost all teams on a basic level of fitness, one wonders whether some of the finest players of their era would have fit into the current set-up.
Inzamam ul Haq was famous for his robust physique. The burly Pakistan batsman lost 18kgs ahead of the 2003 World Cup. He scored 19 runs in the entire tournament and decided to never go down that route again. Arjuna Ranatunga and David Boon were other legends who carried extra baggage. Jesse Ryder is another maverick talent who struggled with his weight.
Samit Patel had a stellar finals day at the T20 Blast for Nottinghamshire. The all-rounder revealed the pain of being overlooked by England despite playing some of his best limited overs cricket at the age of 32. His weight is undoubtedly still an issue. It seems the days of Inzys and Boons are well behind us.
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.
James Anderson is on the verge of becoming the sixth bowler in the history of cricket to pick up 500 Test wickets. The next highest wicket-taker on the list among current players is Dale Steyn (417), followed by Rangana Herath (389) and Stuart Broad (385).
Out of these four players, Sri Lankan spin veteran Herath is unlikely to play much longer as his 39-year-old body is beginning to break down.
Steyn last played a Test in November with a shoulder injury keeping him out of action. The Protea quick played just three out of nine Tests played by his country last year and it is tough to see him playing Test cricket consistently as and when he regains fitness because at 34, he is already very close to the end of the line in the five-day format. That leaves Broad, who at 31 has a decent amount of Test cricket left in his legs.
It means we might have to wait a long time for the next ‘big’ Test bowler. The benchmark here is 500 wickets, not 800 or even 600. Muttiah Muralitharan (800 wickets), Shane Warne (708) and Anil Kumble (619) are so far ahead in the tally, it seems futile to aim for that mark.
Maybe Ravi Ashwin (292 from 52 Tests) can cross the 500-wicket mark. But that is a long way away for the 30-year-old.
Also, Ashwin has to now share wickets with the established names like Ravindra Jadeja, Umesh Yadav and Mohammad Shami. Similarly, if and when Steyn returns, he will face competition from Kagiso Rabada, Chris Morris and Keshav Maharaj for scalps.
So why has the bar lowered for the bowlers, unlike batsmen?
Batsmen continue to break into the elite 10,000 Test-run club. In fact, Alastair Cook (11,581) looks capable of overhauling the all-time mark of Sachin Tendulkar (15,921). Younis Khan recently joined the club while Hashim Amla (8,281) and Ab de Villiers (8,074) can realistically hope to reach five digits.
The main factor now is longevity. Bowlers don’t seem to last at the international stage the way they used to, simply because of the amount of matches being played following the advent of T20 and franchise cricket.
James Anderson (35y 26d) is the oldest pacer to take a 5-wicket haul since Zaheer Khan (35y 130d) vs NZ in 2014. #ENGvWI— Sampath Bandarupalli (@SampathStats) August 27, 2017
Which is why after the current crop of top-class pacers retires, we might never see a pace heavyweight with 400 or 500 Test scalps next to his name.
It’s not as if bowlers aren’t picking up wickets. In the 2016/17 season, 34 Tests produced results with just four draws. It’s just that the wickets are being shared. Matches now regularly finish inside four days, which is more a reflection of batsmen’s willingness to play shots than the talent of bowlers because let’s admit it, there is no Murali or Glenn McGrath in the mix anymore.
That means decent bowlers have a greater chance of picking up wickets, sometimes irrespective of the nature of tracks, as batsmen are simply going for the shots.
It makes for more interesting viewing, but probably means there are a few more ‘cheap’ wickets to be had by any bowler willing to stay disciplined.
In 2006, Warne picked up his 700th wicket. In 2008, Kumble breached the 600-wicket mark. Two years later, Murali finished on 800 scalps. Those numbers look very much out of reach.
The Big Bash League T20 tournament is generally held in December-January. It is followed by the Pakistan Super League in February-March. The Indian Premier League takes up the best part of April and May. The Caribbean Premier League is played from June to August. The Natwest T20 blast in England goes on from July to September. The November slot has been taken up by the Bangladesh Premier League and it will now have to share space with South Africa’s Global T20 league.
That’s nearly 12 months of non-stop cash-rich T20 cricket across the globe. The icing on top of the cake will be England’s new franchise-based T20 tournament.
What was once seen as a distant dream has become a reality – T20 cricket all year round.
While international cricket is still struggling to provide greater relevance to bilateral matches across formats, T20 cricket has burrowed into the calendar without wasting any time.
The reason behind it is simple – individual boards want to have their own T20 cash cows to sustain their international and domestic structure. T20 leagues need no structure or relevance. They just need to be there.
Also, T20 leagues, especially the franchise-based ones, rely on marquee names and they have become a safe avenue for aspiring and established players.
We now have international cricket all year round with hardly any break. And soon we will have T20 cricket running on a loop. Any chance of an overdose?