VVS

As expected, India won the One-Day International series against New Zealand despite making heavy weather of it. I am not sure the 3-2 scoreline is indicative of the relative strengths of the two sides, but it does give a fair idea of how the teams played in what was pretty much an error-ridden five matches.

It was not so much New Zealand winning the second and fourth matches as India losing them through diffident, strangely uncertain batting, and that is something the selection panel and the team management will be eager to address in a season having very few limited-overs games.

The way in which the bowling attack shaped up was extremely heartening, especially with at least three first-choice bowlers rested. MS Dhoni and Anil Kumble will be happy with what they saw from some of the other options in the absence of Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. India have enough choices in both the pace and spin departments, and going forward with the 2019 World Cup in England as the ultimate goal, those are excellent signs.

But strange as it may sound, especially after a series at home, India have plenty of thinking, and work, to do on the batting front. The best Indian batting line-up I have seen was the one that did duty at the World Cup in 2011, and I am not saying this because India won the title. Just look at the top three Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. And then you look at the power-hitters, the 5, 6 and 7 Yuvraj Singh, Dhoni and Suresh Raina (or Yusuf Pathan). Throw a still young, still work-in-progress Virat Kohli into the mix, and you know what I am talking about.

Historically, India s successes in limited-overs formats have stemmed from a strong, steady, stable, sometimes explosive start. That was not forthcoming at any stage of this ODI series. I think when they look back, both Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane will be disappointed, particularly the latter. Rohit has been a great batsman in ODI format from the time he began to open the innings in early 2013, and has shown that once he is set, he can get the big hundreds indeed, even the big double-hundreds. But by his and anyone s standards, he had a quiet time, topping 20 just once and not providing the impetus he is known for.

In his defence, he did receive two excellent deliveries from Tim Southee, but the area on and around off-stump is still cause for concern. He did show promising signs in the decider in Visakhapatnam and appeared primed for a big one in the city of his birth until an untimely injury cut him short in full flow, but that one innings will not take away the fact that his performance was far below his potential.

Given how Rahane s game is, the best slot for him in the limited-overs set-up is at the top of the tree. In this series, with both Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul out through injury, Rahane had five opportunities to make a strong case for himself. I am afraid he did not do his cause too much good. It was not so much the fact that he got starts and managed just one fifty that was disappointing. He got out to soft dismissals after having done all the hard work and played himself in. That is uncharacteristic of someone who has embraced responsibility without fail in the longer format. Perhaps he was a little too keyed up; perhaps he felt he had to prove a point or two.

Whatever the reason, the selectors will face a tricky call when Shikhar and Rahul are fit and available. Do they go back to the Rohit-Shikhar combine that has been very successful in the last three years, or do they pair Rohit with Rahul, who has not put a foot wrong since his ODI debut earlier this year?

It is unfair on Virat that the batting has started to revolve almost entirely around him, especially when India are chasing. It is no secret that Virat relishes a challenge and loves orchestrating a chase, but he can do with greater contributions from those around him. India cannot afford to be a one-man army. There is too much quality in the ranks for that to happen, but maybe the fact that they are not playing enough one-day cricket at the international level has played its part in the hesitancy creeping in.

As we discussed in the last column, to see MS at No. 4 is great. For most of his career, he has batted down the order and relied on his explosive power to finish games. I think the time has come for MS to offer more substantial runs to the team at four, get a few hundreds, set the tone and control the innings, because he is capable of all this and more. Having said that, MS himself would have realised that there are some concerns that he must work on.

One of them is how he handles the ball turning away from him. Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi kept him scoreless for long periods by bowling outside off, and they were backed up by smart field settings from Kane Williamson, who had two men patrolling the covers and did not allow MS easy singles down the ground. One of the reasons why MS struggles to manoeuvre the ball into gaps is because unlike most Indian batsmen, he is not very wristy. He relies on punches for singles; when bowlers bowl to a plan like Santner and Sodhi did, he will struggle to rotate the strike.

MS will eventually catch up with the strike rate because he still has the ability to hit the big shots if not, understandably, with the same fluency and frequency of the past but when he is not turning the strike over, it can affect the rhythm of his partner as it did with Rahane in Ranchi and to some extent with Virat in Visakhapatnam. And because of the fields from Williamson, he tried to play the sweep which he does not employ often, a stroke that eventually led to his downfall in the last game.

MS can overcome this problem by playing like he did in Mohali. Even after all these years, bowlers are still scared to bowl to him because they know how much damage he can do. When he starts to dictate terms, he throws the bowlers off their rhythm. That is the MS India need. Otherwise, if he consumes balls in the middle overs and then gets out like he did in Delhi, it leaves the incoming batsmen with plenty to do, especially if they are inexperienced at the international level like Manish Pandey and Kedar Jadhav.

To me, the biggest disappointment of this series was Pandey. He took my breath away with his well compiled century under great pressure in Sydney at the start of the year, and I was particularly impressed with his awareness and temperament. It is precisely these two facets that let him down over the last fortnight. Pandey must realise that while it is fine to be positive, there is a very thin line between aggression and recklessness. Of his four dismissals, three were to poor strokes in the context of the game, and one was a needless run-out immediately after the fall of a wicket. The important thing is not to commit the same mistake each time, which means that you are learning from your previous mistake. I hope Pandey pays heed to that.

When I talk situational awareness, take the Vizag game. Virat was at the other end when Pandey walked in, and by then, even though he had spent enough time at the crease, Virat had just two boundaries. When the best batsman in the side is not able to find the fence, it means both the pitch and the bowling need to be respected and understood fully. Pandey attempted a big shot off his fifth ball, hitting against the turn and being caught at deep mid-wicket off Sodhi s leg-spin. It was a very low-percentage shot. If Rahane must be rueing not sealing his slot at the top of the order, Pandey must be kicking himself for throwing his wicket away more than once.

It was there that I was impressed with Jadhav, who I think has all the skills required to finish games off. He is sharp, smart, has the game against pace capable of playing square of the wicket on both sides and against spin, to which he uses the length of the track as well as the depth of the crease with equal felicity. He has a calm head on his shoulders and, with greater experience and exposure, should be part of a strong finishing group.

For a long period, India have relied on MS to apply the finishing touches. Now, it becomes imperative for team balance and for the future to identify and nurture more choices. The trio of Pandey, Jadhav and Hardik Pandya, has what it takes to deliver at 5, 6 and 7. They need to be given the confidence that their places are not under immediate threat, but they must also generate the confidence that they can get the job done in a crunch situation. MS has taken the burden upon himself, convinced that he is the best man for the job and insulating the rest from the pressures of finishing off an innings. Unless we try others out, we will not know what they are capable of, will we?

(VVS Laxman, CricketCountry’s Chief Cricket Mentor, remains one of the finest and most elegant batsmen in history. He was part of the iconic Indian middle-order for over a decade and a half and played 134 Tests and 86 ODIs. He tweets @vvslaxman281)