India’s run in the Champions Trophy had distinct imprints of MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli. It will forever be Dhoni’s legacy that India are not overawed at big events, and instead of playing the flashy cricket they were historically known for, they play percentage cricket that forces opponents to go for something special, and, more often than not, make mistakes. In big one-off matches it is difficult to execute percentage cricket let alone flash.
India are good at swooping in once a mistake is made. A testimony to this style of play is that since 2011, they have made it to the semi-final of six of the seven ICC tournaments, progressed to the finals of four, and won two of them. Their win-loss ratio of 4.25 at ICC events over the last six years is streets ahead of second-placed New Zealand’s 1.75.
Under Kohli, India have ostensibly been focussing on the seamers rather than their traditional strength, the spinners. Perhaps never before have Indian quicks bowled with clear plans and executed them in pressure situations as Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah did in this Champions Trophy. Indian fast bowlers can look a million dollars when there is assistance from conditions. The 2007 World T20 is a good example of it: there was swing and seam to be had, and Sreesanth and RP Singh exploited it beautifully. Now, however, no limited-overs pitches provide seam, and for some reason the white Kookaburra has hardly swung since the end of the last World Cup.
In certain ways, this was a more satisfactory tournament for India than in 2013. There was more evidence of planning and deliberation
In these situations, India’s quicks have been known to just run up and bowl without plans, or go against those plans that are in place, or one bowler – usually Bhuvneshwar – would be posing some threat but there would be no pressure from the other end. Also, in the past, it has been easy to rattle the India fast bowlers. One batsman goes after them, and they crumble. In this Champions Trophy, though, for arguably the first time, you could see the quicks had studied the opposition batsmen extensively, had formulated good strategies, bowled accordingly, as a team, and weren’t spooked when somebody attacked them.
The way Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah tied down Quinton de Kock, who had already scored five hundreds in nine matches against India, was exceptional. There was simply no room for the batsman to play his favourite shots. Bhuvneshwar showed so much control over his bowling that he did away with third man and sent point back; India conceded only four runs square or behind square on the off side out of de Kock’s 53. His eventual wicket was brought about by this suffocation.
India did the same to Tamim Iqbal for the first 15 overs or so before he opened up against the second rung of bowlers. They were on the money against Fakhar Zaman, whom they had never played before, until he pulled off some jaw-dropping, high-risk hitting in the middle overs. Kohli has insisted that his fast bowlers be fitter and stronger. As a result, Bhuvneshwar has become faster, and a more potent weapon than he was before.
In certain ways, this was a more satisfactory tournament for India than in 2013, when they had helpful conditions and things just fell in place. There was more evidence of planning and deliberation. As Kohli said, they can hold their heads high as the best team in ICC events this decade. But they can’t afford to rest on their laurels.
Most matches at ICC events have huge significance – especially in the compact Champions Trophy and World T20 – so India’s being good at controlling their nerves better than some of the other teams can mask some of the issues they have, which tend to crop up at least once in a tournament. Like their spin bowling, believe it or not.
Ravindra Jadeja, their first-choice in ODIs, last took three wickets in a match in October 2014. His economy rate of 5.64 since then is significantly worse than 4.92 over his career. He has been irresponsible with the bat under pressure too. It is his fielding – best in the world today? – that is keeping him in the side. India’s second pick is also a fingerspinner, R Ashwin. No other team in this tournament played two such bowlers unless they also batted in the top seven.
About 20% of India’s XIs were a breed struggling to stay afloat in limited-overs cricket. With Ashwin, for the first time in the tournament, it felt like India didn’t have a plan. Or if they did, they were not following it. Kohli kept giving him a slip to go for wickets, but Ashwin kept firing into the pads of Zaman. Now, it is entirely possible that a bowler loses confidence when batsmen are going after him successfully and fails to execute plans, but that is when the captain has to act quickly and make sure both of them are trying to achieve the same thing. Also, with Jadeja, it is easy to see his job is to bowl defensively and rush through the overs. India don’t need another spinner doing the same thing.
India have shown awareness of trends by selecting a wristspinner for the series immediately after the Champions Trophy, but that also suggests they were not with the times in the year leading up to the event
If ODIs are going to be won in the middle overs, India will need a wristspinner. They did get wickets between the 11th and the 40th here, but it can be argued they were a tad lucky. South Africa kept running themselves out, and Bangladesh threw them away to a part-timer, whose introduction by itself was a move of desperation. India have shown awareness of trends by selecting left-arm wristspinner Kuldeep Yadav for the series immediately after the Champions Trophy, but that also suggests they were not with the times in the year leading up to the event, and weren’t bold enough to try a rookie in the big tournament.
We are not yet in a position to say how good Kuldeep might be in the same way we are not yet in a position to say how good India’s middle order is. The top three shielded them from most of the pressure, and when their turn came to chip in, they were left with a near-impossible task.
What we do know is that two of them will be 37 when the 2019 World Cup arrives. Dhoni, with a couple of sensational catches that he made look easy, has shown he is still the best wicketkeeper for spin bowling and Yuvraj Singh has shown his timing has not left him. Yet any cricketer will tell you that at that age skills can deteriorate quickly; two years is a long time.
The problem is, if Dhoni and Yuvraj hurt India, they will do so in those middle to late overs, where matches are being won and lost. Teams are recovering from early wickets nowadays – Dhoni and Yuvraj did that for India against England at home – but a slowdown or loss of wickets from overs 25 to 40 can be irredeemable.
India have now thrown 19-year-old, hard-hitting wicketkeeper batsman Rishabh Pant into the mix, which shows they are aware of the need for contingencies, but the time to act decisively is approaching fast. When he was captain, Dhoni himself used to say that if you have to take a player to the World Cup, he must have played 60-70 ODIs beforehand to feel comfortable. So while Dhoni and Yuvraj might still be doing okay, you don’t want to be in a scenario that they lose form and fitness just before the World Cup and you have nobody else ready for the big event. This is where the selectors, coach, captain, and players themselves will have to be vigilant and make the hard calls.
At a time when India’s top order and fast bowling look healthy, the shaky areas are centred around their two best spinners in Tests – which feature dramatically different conditions – and two of the best ODI batsmen ever. This is not an enviable part of the leadership job, whoever may be a part of it now.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.