At the prize distribution ceremony, the Oval cut a sorry figure on Sunday evening. It had been abuzz with colour and noise all through the day. But right about the time when Pakistan players were being adorned in sparkling white jackets, only a wave of green was to be seen at the venue of this 2017 Champions Trophy final.
And why not, for the Indian fans scrambled for the exit as soon as MS Dhoni fell, with the scorecard reading 54-5. The Men in Blue cut a forlorn figure at the end, with their supporters all but vanishing from sight. So much so, Pakistan’s fans inexplicably booed Virat Kohli when he went up to collect his runners-up medal. The game was over, and the hostilities should have ended.
This isn’t about morality or ‘spirit of cricket’ though. Instead, it is about that ‘runners-up’ tag that now adorns this Indian team as regards to the Champions Trophy. They are no longer title-holders of any major tournament in world cricket. Yet, it cannot be denied that this has been an impressive journey from 2013 to 2017, from victory against England in a rain-curtailed game four years ago to defeat against Pakistan now.
In between, this team has undergone many changes, facelifts if you will, as the Men in Blue finished runners-up in the 2014 World T20 in Bangladesh, and semi-finalists in both the 2015 ODI World Cup in Australia-New Zealand as well as the 2016 World T20 at home. In finishing runners-up here in England, India have shown a streak of consistency despite the obvious change in leadership.
You can look at this in two ways.
First – immense potential, wherein this Indian team is on the cusp of winning a major trophy soon enough. They have all major pieces in place, whether it comes to a world-class top-order, a passionate captain, an upcoming seam-bowling big-hitting all-rounder, two well-known spinners and four high-quality fast bowlers. They also have an ageing, clever keeper-batsman who is also a former skipper, and a bench strength that is the toast of world cricket.
The problem is that these pieces haven’t quite fit together in the jigsaw puzzle since that victory in 2013. Four ICC tournaments have come and gone, and this fearsome combination is yet to win a single one of them. Despite all talent and confidence available to them, this Indian team – replete with almost superhuman ability – has been unable to take that last step up to the winning podium. This is where the second point gets highlighted.
A lot of work needs to be put in to give this squad of players that complete look of a championship winning team. Two losses in five matches, in addition to making the final, don’t add up to a poor tournament. But when you look at those two losses – by seven wickets against Sri Lanka, who chased down 322 with eight balls to spare, and an embarrassing 180-run loss against Pakistan – gaping holes in this Indian line-up stare back at you.
“We have identified areas, even in victories, that we can improve at, and this was a loss. It’s the final, so it looks magnified to everyone, but we have won before, we have lost before, and we have always learned things from all those games,” said Kohli in the post-match conference on Sunday.
At first glance, the first frailty is quite obvious. This Indian team lacks a proper balance in its bowling attack, which is partly fault on Hardik Pandya’s part, never mind his explosive knock in the final. He is in the eleven as an all-rounder, and he managed to complete his quota of overs in only two out of five matches. It meant that Kohli had to rely on part-timers (Kedar Jadhav and himself), which is currently not a strong suite of this team.
Of course, the other big worry is regarding the spin combination. Both Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja bowled quite defensively throughout the tournament. It has been a standing brief for Indian spinners to try and contain scoring whenever playing overseas, certainly on such flat tracks, and they failed twice on this count. The Indian team management perhaps needs to start looking at an aggressive spin option, perhaps a wrist spinner going ahead.
All of it, though, depends on a desire for change. Indian cricket is too steeped in powerhouse names, and Ashwin-Jadeja certainly enjoy this status, given their individual and collective exploits in the season gone past. This holds truer in the case of Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh perhaps. Can anyone honestly see them together in a 2019 World Cup playing eleven?
Maybe there is vacancy for one of them, given their experience, but the need for change has to start at this juncture. If the answer to that aforementioned question is yes, then India will not win two years hence either. In case that answer is no, and there is an appetite for change, then maybe Kohli will help his side to the victory step in 2019.