They say you learn more from a defeat than you do from victory. India‘s defeat in the first ODI against Australia was, therefore, one of the best lessons they could have received in a World Cup year.
The margin of defeat was ultimately 34 runs but the actual difference between the two teams was a lot more. India had fallen well behind by the halfway stage and even as Rohit Sharma battled valiantly, the climbing asking rate was never going to be threatened by an Indian middle order that has a distinct lack of hitting power.
India were slow to start off, seemingly still on a high after the historic Test series win. An Australian team that struggled in ODIs in 2018 with just two wins and 11 defeats was not expected to test the Indians over 100 overs. But an up and down bowling effort from seamers Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Khaleel Ahmed saw three Australians score a fifty and help post a challenging 288-5 on a sluggish Sydney pitch.
Then the ghost of the 2017 Champions Trophy final returned to haunt India as they lost opener Shikhar Dhawan and captain Virat Kohli early to be reduced to 4-3. While Rohit continued his exemplary form with the bat, scoring at close to run a ball and then raising his pace at the end, veteran keeper MS Dhoni progressed at half the speed.
Many believe Dhoni tried to make a match out of it by taking the innings deep. If the keeper had gone for his shorts earlier, the Indians could have lost by a massive margin. But this series is not about results, it’s about intent of each player leading up to the World Cup. Scoring 51 from 96 balls did stop the bleeding for a while. And while Dhoni was unlucky to be out lbw as the ball from Jason Behrendorff pitched outside leg, it would have taken a monumental effort from MSD to make up for the huge gap between runs scored and balls faced.
Kohli supposedly needs Dhoni as a guiding light when it comes to field placings, decision review and on-field strategy. Fair enough, as Dhoni’s experience is worth its weight in gold. But equally hefty is Dhoni’s dwindling hitting power. If Dhoni is a vital cog of India’s 2019 World Cup plans, then they need to reassemble the machinery and bring in another component – Rishabh Pant.
The wicketkeeper batsman is one of the most dynamic hitters seen in Indian cricket since, well, Dhoni. The 21-year-old Pant made a name for himself as a fearless power hitter in white-ball cricket and was a shoo-in in the 50-over and T20 squads.
However, it’s his uncomplicated and imposing batting in the Test arena that has truly underlined his game-changing credentials. It’s alright to hit a quick 30 or 40 in limited overs games but something else to smash Test tons in England and Australia against top-class bowling attacks.
Commentators in Australia are can’t fathom why India have kept Pant out of the ODI team while fielding players like Ambati Rayudu and Dinesh Karthik who are nowhere near Pant’s hitting abilities.
India selector MSK Prasad said Pant is being rested and is part of the World Cup plans. But ideally, now is the time to test him against good opposition away from home and finalise at least two batting positions – for Pant and Dhoni.
Ideally, Dhoni should bat at number four and Pant down at number five or six depending on team composition. That would provide India the security should there be a collapse like we saw in Sydney and also ensure there is a player who can up the scoring rate in the final hour of the innings.
Pant is certain to be the future star of Indian batting. The sooner he is allowed to express himself in 50-overs cricket, the better.
Australian seamer Jhye Richardson picked up four wickets to help defend a commanding total of 288-5 despite Rohit’s 133 and MS Dhoni’s 51.
It was Australia’s 1000th win in international cricket and they became the first country to do so.
Richardson said getting the wicket of captain Virat Kohli with a ball down the leg side was a lucky break.
“Yeah, I was actually probably a little bit disappointed when the ball came out, probably bowled it a little bit too straight, but luckily enough I had a fielder there who hung on to it. So it will be a wicket that I will remember for a very long time,” he said.
Rohit was disappointed as his fourth ODI ton in Australia also ended up in defeat.
“Unfortunately in all the four hundreds that I have got in Australia, we have lost all the games. So, that is one thing I want to change, if I get a hundred I want to make sure that we win the game as well,” Rohit said.
Fifties from Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb saw the Aussies post 288-5 on a sluggish Sydney pitch before the hosts’ new-ball bowlers Jason Behrendorff and Jhye Richardson reduced India to four runs for three wickets. Rohit scored a superb 133 from just 129 balls but got support only from Dhoni – who laboured to 51 from 96 balls – as the Aussies prevailed by 34 runs.
Ambati Rayudu (0) has been India’s No4 batsman for some time but he has yet to make the spot his own. After the match, Rohit said what many outside the team had been talking about for a long time – Dhoni is not the lower-order finisher he once was and needs to bat at number four as some other power hitter comes lower down.
“Personally I fell, Dhoni batting at number four will be ideal for the team. But we have got Rayudu who has done well. Depends on what the captain and coach are thinking. Personally speaking, I would be happy if he bats at number four,” Rohit said on Saturday.
Since Rohit has captained India in Virat Kohli’s absence – leading the team to the Asia Cup win in UAE – his views carry weight.
Dhoni scored at barely three runs an over and that meant that even though Rohit scored at more than run a ball, India were all but out of game at the halfway stage. However, Rohit defended Dhoni’s slow rate of scoring.
“MS’s overall strike rate is about 85-90. When he came out to bat, we had lost three wickets. We had to respect that spell. We wanted to get partnerships. Sometimes you have to grind it out. When the bowlers are disciplined, it’s not easy for batsmen to go and start hitting.
“We wanted to get partnership. If we had lost a wicket then, the game would have been dead. Wanted to take the game forward. Hence we had to play dot balls,” the batsman added.
Rohit said performances like the ones in Sydney show India have a long way to go as the World Cup draws closer. “International cricket is all about absorbing pressure. Today was the perfect example when we were put under pressure and we weren’t able to absorb it.”