NEW DELHI: India’s lack of a sixth bowling option is being cited as a major reason for their abject bowling performance in the ODIs in Australia, in which the visitors lost the first two games and the series.
When Hardik Pandya burst on to the scene in 2016, it seemed India’s eternal hunt for the next seam-bowling all-rounder after Kapil Dev had been realized. His presence also came as a relief for the top-order batsmen, relieving them of a responsibility to keep honing their bowling skills.
Pandya’s injury has now meant there isn’t a worthy sixth-bowling option if any of the five regular bowlers have an off day. Indian cricket no longer has the luxury of having the likes of Sehwag, Yuvraj, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Raina, who could all turn their arm over.
Top-order batsmen not bowling has been a worrying trend. In recent times, there has been underlying reluctance in batsmen to bowl in the nets. Former India wicketkeeper Vijay Dahiya, who is currently with Delhi Capitals as a talent scout, has identified the growing support staff in teams as the main reason for this development.
“There are three or four coaches and throwdown specialists in both IPL and state teams these days. So top-order batsmen don’t need to roll their arm over to give the lower-order batsmen some practice, unlike 10-20 years ago,” Dahiya, who has also been head coach of the Delhi state team and assistant coach at KKR, told TOI.
“When I coached Delhi, I ensured these batsmen bowled for 20 minutes to the tailenders. But this is a passing phase. Now that people have sensed this opportunity, they will start taking to bowling more seriously,” he added.
It’s not that the Indian team management didn’t anticipate the issue. Rohit Sharma tried to hone his off-spin but gave up due to shoulder and finger injuries. Shreyas Iyer was identified as a leg-spin option last year, but he too didn’t work on his bowling. Shubman Gill, it was believed could bowl decently, but hasn’t been training of late. “This is why the last selection committee wanted to groom Vijay Shankar and Shivam Dube, who could bat in the top five and also chip in with a few overs. They were asked to work on their bowling. But Dube hasn’t really improved his bowling and Shankar has been battling fitness issues due to his bowling,” former chief national selector MSK Prasad said.
Like Dahiya, Prasad too believes that this series will encourage more batsmen to work on their bowling and India will have a few more options soon.
This phase resembles the time when there were many wicketkeeper-batsmen vying for the same slot, like Robin Uthappa, Ambati Rayudu and even Kedar Jadhav. “But did any of them actually succeed and graduate to the next level,” asks former India wicketkeeper Deep Dasgupta. “Only KL Rahul, who was sincere and persevered with wicket-keeping, could grow. So even to be the sixth or seventh bowler, you need to be that sincere about it.”
“The key is to encourage this new generation of top-order batsmen to bowl more, like state sides used to back in the day. Then you pick a player on merit but you have to careful that you don’t get too carried away with his bowling abilities and not focus on his primary skill which is batting,” Dasgupta added.
The Indian team management is lucky the T20 World Cup has been pushed back by a year. Former national selector Devang Gandhi believes this is the perfect time to put more responsibility on Hardik the batsman while they look for another back-up all-rounder. “It won’t be a bad idea to push Hardik up the order and make space for a backup all-rounder at No. 6. Kedar Jadhav made it to the World Cup over Ambati Rayudu because he could bowl a few overs. One may have to sacrifice a regular top-order batsman but that will also give an opportunity to groom Hardik’s cover in the future,” Gandhi said.
The issue plaguing India’s white-ball cricket is as obvious as the ‘indefinite No. 4’ a year ago. It’s just that the team has enough time to plug this hole before the next mega event arrives in a year’s time.