On Tuesday at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, one team was playing a One-Day International for the first time since the semi-final exit at the 2019 World Cup. The other team, had played two bilateral series in the past six months and, in general, has been busy with white-ball engagements.
Yet, on evidence of what we saw unfold, it seemed as if Australia are the side in red-hot form and India, the rusty side playing with the heavy legs that one usually associates with lack of match practice. The visitors were expected to give India a good fight but a 10-wicket hiding was not on anyone’s prediction list for the first ODI. Australia showed that a well-prepared side, with good game plans, can hit the ground running even after such a long break from one format of the game.
Chopping and changing
Let’s get this straight: the defeat in the first ODI, in all likelihood, is an one-off. It is the first time ever Kohli has been a part of a 10-wicket loss as a captain, it is the first time ever Australia have defeated India by that margin, and only the second time the men in blue have been part of such a result on home soil (first, being in Kolkata against South Africa in 2005). The series itself is largely without a context, being played in India during the Australian summer and at a time when no team is really thinking about their ODI squads. So, the reaction to such a result will have to be tempered.
Honestly, Kohli’s team selection also somewhat reflect this scenario. If there was something truly riding on the outcome of this three-match rubber, there was no reason to chop and change the batting combination that has largely worked since the end of the World Cup. Kohli was in good touch at No 3, Shreyas Iyer was settling in at No 4 and Rishabh Pant had shown against West Indies that he was beginning to understand the responsibilities of batting at No 5.
And yet, against an opposition of Australia’s undoubted quality, Kohli came up with the idea to accommodate three openers at the top of the order and push himself (and the rest of the batters) a spot down the order. KL Rahul is in great white-ball form and Shikhar Dhawan needs game time. And with Kohli also saying he does not want to pit the two against each other as if it was a battle, this felt like a move to prove a point that he can (and will) make the sacrifice for the greater good.
On paper, it is not the worst of ideas. When someone sees the scoreboard of this match in Mumbai, the partnership between Dhawan and Rahul will arguably seem like the only positive to emerge from the match. But the point that would get lost then is the fact that none of India’s top three kicked on to make a big score, which has been the reason largely for India’s successes in ODIs. Both Rahul and Dhawan threw their wickets away when well set and when Kohli was sent back by Adam Zampa (again), the familiar issue with the middle order cropped up again.
Welcome back to 2019, Indian fans.
Now, India do not really have to plan for the 2023 World Cup from now but even talking in terms of the upcoming T20 marquee event, it makes little sense to play all three of the openers. As Aaron Finch and David Warner showed later, there is a lot of value in having a regular opening partnership and India should ideally be letting Rohit Sharma and Rahul strengthen their already impressive combination at the top, if the side is truly only worried about getting the combination right for the tournament Down Under later this year.
To shoehorn Dhawan into the mix, and in the process, asking the best ODI batsman in the world right now (and perhaps, of all-time) play at a position where his prowess is not utilised fully, makes little sense. Kohli, the batsman is being hard done by Kohli, the captain. That is not to say that playing the conventional batting line-up would have made the difference in Mumbai, as Kohli righted pointed out that the intent was strangely lacking from almost every Indian player who walked out to bat. But this game plan certainly did not help India’s cause.
This strategy might indeed now be binned, as Kohli hinted at a rethink after the match. But the takeaway is that, India must refrain from repeating mistakes from the past.
Introducing chaos into the batting set-up has already proved costly once for Kohli. And his search for options seems to be omnipresent. He keeps talking about being prepared for various challenges, he is constantly looking for a Plan B, Plan C and so on.
But, as we saw in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup and the tournament itself, this quest for variety and urge for experimentation, tends to take his focus away from firming up a Plan A in the first place. Kohli and India would do well to remember that in the days, weeks and months leading up to the T20 World Cup 2020.