India’s World Cup preparations got off to the worst possible start, with their batting and bowling falling well short of expectations in their warm-up match against New Zealand on Saturday.
Batting first in overcast conditions at The Oval, Virat Kohli’s team had no answers to Trent Boult’s swing as the much vaunted Indian batting line-up was reduced to 91-7 before a fighting fifty from Ravindra Jadeja added some respectability to the total.
The Kiwis had no trouble chasing down the target with only Jasprit Bumrah making an impact in his four overs, giving away two runs, while the rest of the attack was handled expertly. Wrist spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal made hardly any impact, adding to India’s misery.
However, it was the capitulation against the moving ball that is of greater concern as this is not the first time it has happened this year.
DE JA VU
In the five-match ODI series in New Zealand earlier in the year, India were given a lesson for the ages in the fourth ODI – having already taken a 3-0 lead in the series – as they were shot out for 92 on a seaming pitch with Boult leading the way then again with five wickets.
In the fifth and final match of that series, India were once again staring down the barrel at 18-4 before a superb fightback from Ambati Rayudu and Vijay Shankar put them right back in the contest by taking the total to an eventually match-winning 252.
What those two matches showed was that no matter how good a form the Indian batting line-up is in, they can fold like a pack of cards if there is some help for the seamers.
Pitch today nothing like you would find in the main games. Not as much work has gone into it. So take India’s batting performance with a pinch of salt.#ICCWC2019— Sanjay Manjrekar (@sanjaymanjrekar) May 25, 2019
The main reason for India’s troubles against the moving ball in ODIs is the absence of an established middle order. With the World Cup just days away, India are still sorting out their middle order combination with no clarity over the No4 position. The top three of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli are worth their weight in gold but against the swinging ball, the openers especially are sitting ducks.
Only captain Kohli and keeper MS Dhoni seem to have the game to bat out a majority of the overs and put up a competitive score. Otherwise, it is left to the likes of Hardik Pandya, or Jadeja as was the case on Saturday, to put some runs on the board.
BUMRAH OR BUST?
Another concern is the over-reliance on Jasprit Bumrah with the ball. New Zealand were content to play out the four overs of Bumrah and go after the rest of the attack, with Mohammed Shami looking the second most impressive bowler. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and the wrist spinners simply don’t inspire any confidence at the moment and that leaves a gaping hole of at least 20 overs which India need to suddenly fill.
Former captain Smith and team-mate David Warner have recently returned from year-long bans for their roles in the 2018 ball-tampering scandal and the renewal of hostilities with their Ashes rivals brought the expected jeers as they arrived and departed the crease.
The heckling was far from deafening, though, and Smith was even treated to respectful clapping as he brought up his fifty and hundred in the away team’s 297 for seven.
For England the greater concern of the day was an injury scare for Mark Wood, who exited midway through his fourth over and headed for the pavilion with pain in his left foot, joining Eoin Morgan (finger) and Adil Rashid (shoulder) in the treatment room.
Although Wood is the biggest worry, particularly given long-standing problems with his left ankle, there were also dicey moments for Jofra Archer and Liam Dawson.
Archer was due to be rested until he replaced the departing Wood, only to take a knock within moments of entering the fray. He re-emerged later in the innings to dispel concerns but then Dawson was struck on the hand backing up Joe Root’s throw, splitting the skin in his right ring finger. The latter was immediately advised not to bat in the chase.
Amid these various frights there was the unusual sight of England’s assistant coach Paul Collingwood arriving as an emergency fielder wearing Wood’s kit. The former one-day captain, who turns 43 on Sunday, was pressed into service to make up the numbers despite retiring from competitive cricket last September.
Wood made England’s first breakthrough, seeing off Australia skipper Aaron Finch, before exiting in pain. Warner fared better, managing 43 before flapping Liam Plunkett to wide long-on, the first of four wickets for the seamer.
There were boos and heckles for the departing batsman and his replacement, Smith, but the latter continued his rich vein of form since reintegration to the national side.
His previous three innings had yielded 89 not out, 91no and 76 and this time he reached three figures in style, getting there in 94 deliveries and finishing with eight fours and three sixes.
Plunkett’s four for 69 were the pick of the England bowling figures, with one success each for Wood, Tom Curran and Dawson.
England are often accused of arrogance – the final will be played at the ‘Home of Cricket’ after all – but their confidence, for once, has not been misplaced.
Remember where this team was four years ago? Hopelessly outplayed and outscored in a tournament that marked a turning point for ODI cricket into the gung-ho brand we know and (mostly) love today.
It didn’t take long for England to play catch-up. A management team that saw fit to drop Ben Stokes ahead of that infamous World Cup was cast aside and, in the four years since, these one-day pioneers have made scoring more than 300 look like child’s play.
Unbeaten in their last 11 bilaterial ODI series and victories in 10 of them, the addition of a ready-made world-class fast bowler in Jofra Archer has strengthened a team full of cricketing cheat codes.
However, sure things do not exist, a fact the hosts hardly need reminding of after their feted batting line-up fatally came undone by Pakistan in the Champions Trophy two years ago. You’d nonetheless be brave to bet against them.
Record: Runners-up in 1979, 1987 and 1992.
Squad: Eoin Morgan (c), Moeen Ali, Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler (wk), Tom Curran, Liam Dawson, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid, Joe Root, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, James Vince, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood.
Strength: Stuart Broad described England’s current top seven as the best in their entire history and while that’s hyperbolic, it certainly isn’t a crazy assessment. Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Eoin Morgan and Joe Root start a sparkling batting order, while all-rounders Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali are almost laughably luxurious options. The rest isn’t bad, either.
Weakness: It’s a hair-splitting exercise. The middle overs sometimes get away from the England bowling attack if it’s a particularly flat one, and Stokes’ form is worrying. More than anything it will be a test of mental character for a nation so heavily favoured this year, but yet to win a World Cup.
Player to watch: Archer. His fast-track into an already supremely successful England squad raised a few eyebrows, not least the resident bowlers. But his ‘trial’ during the Pakistan series has added another string to an England bow hardly short of them.
Surprise package: More of a forgotten package – Adil Rashid, which is strange to say given he has taken the most ODI wickets since the 2015 World Cup. Yet there is a feeling he has been in the shadows heading into the tournament, where deceptive leg-spinners should thrive against attack-minded teams.