Team balance is the key for sustained consistency in a team sport. India, well aware of this, were keen on identifying the ideal talent at crucial positions in a bid to boost their chances at the 2019 World Cup.
It is in this context that the five-match One-Day International series against the West Indies became a lot more than just a bilateral contest for India.
The first priority was to secure the number four batting position. The secondary aim was to fit in a fifth bowler who could also bat. Then of course, there was a bid to find the ideal finisher or pinch hitter, but that objective was way below in the order of priorities.
Skipper Virat Kohli rightly acknowledged Ambati Rayudu “grabbing his opportunities, batting with maturity and composure” as the biggest takeaway from the series. And so it was.
The feisty Hyderabad batsman got a big confidence booster from the skipper even before the series began: Kohli publicly said that Rayudu was the best bet for the number four spot.
Considering that Rayudu was eased out of the team for the tour of England after failing the Yo-Yo test, this public endorsement from Kohli was just the shot in the arm needed. He did not disappoint, as scores of 22 not out, 73, 22 and 100 reveal. Now if only he could carry that form over to Australia and beyond.
But while Kohli rejoiced the coming of age of Rayudu, he must have grown concerned over the failure of one of his key men, opener Shikhar Dhawan. The southpaw has the ability to punch the ball well and bring a lot of variables to the opening partnership. But scores of 4, 29, 35, 38 and 6 against an inconsistent West Indies attack on home pitches was not exactly a morale-boosting display.
Dhawan was the big disappointment in a top order where Rohit Sharma, Kohli and Rayudu distinguished themselves with centuries.
Sharma struck two big tons (152 not out & 162) to go along with scores of 4, 8 and 63 not out, while Kohli’s batting was on a different plain altogether. His three successive tons (140, 157, 107) in the first three ODIs were stunning for amazing consistency and sheer brilliance.
It took the load off the other batsmen and rarely called upon those lower down the order to test their mettle in match conditions. MS Dhoni, for instance, batted just thrice, and when all too few deliveries were on offer, to make 20, 7, 23.
His inability to stay with Kohli in the third ODI, which India lost, was a disappointment. Dhoni, though, made up for it with his wicket-keeping where he once again was outstanding. His astute advice on DRS calls was also a big support for Kohli.
May be if Rishabh Pant had hammered the ball with a lot more fluency and consistency, Kohli’s cup of joy would have overflowed. But that was not to be.
Khaleel Ahmed was another big find of the series. Kohli showered rich praise on the 20-year-old left arm pace bowler. “Khaleel was outstanding. It was good to have him come and take wickets. It is always a comfort to have a good left-arm seam bowling option.”
Kohli, appreciating his raw talent, gave Khaleel four matches and the pacer impressed in the last two, particularly at Mumbai where during his haul of 3 for 13 he showed the ability to move the ball both ways. Khaleel can only improve from here and should be a huge asset before long.
The other pacers were also rotated well with only Umesh Yadav getting two ODIs. The others, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, played three matches apiece. Bumrah was of course the pick of the bowlers, though others too had their moments.
Kohli admitted that India were on the lookout for an all-rounder as this would bring balance to the team. He specifically mentioned Hardik Pandya and Kedar Jadhav, both of whom were on the injured list. Jadhav returned for the fourth and fifth matches but had precious little to do. The absence of these two brought Ravindra Jadeja back into the mix.
The left-arm spinner-batsman appeared in four games, but met with real success only in the final one-dayer, in which he bagged 4 for 34. His batting was not really put to the test though.
The presence of a bowler who can bat could ensure that the team bats deep. It would also provide plenty of cushion in the bowling department. Earlier, Pandya fitted this role well as his aggressive batting, excellent fielding and steady bowling gave the team a lot of depth. His injury has left a vaccum in that spot.
The recall of Jadeja suggested that there are not too many quality young all-rounders who could fit the bill, which must be a cause for worry. Nevertheless the success with Rayudu at number four and the arrival of Khaleel as another pace bowler of substance must be seen as the biggest plus points from a series where the outcome was never in doubt. India won 3-1, rather than 5-0 only because the West Indies gave glimpses of what they were capable of.
Kohli, Rohit, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Bumrah, performed with the proficiency expected and even if the relative failure of Pant robbed the team of a big hitter, this series must be seen as one where India’s team-building exercise ticked most of the boxes.