Numbers don’t lie. Notwithstanding the defeats in Dhaka and some close games at ICC events, India start Friday’s Super Four match as overwhelming favourites against Bangladesh. The result won’t bear any immediate consequence though, considering India are already in the final.
But rarely do India get an opportunity to play all three top subcontinent rivals within a week, that too with less than a month to go for a World Cup at home. In the grand scheme of things hence, there are quite a few scenarios that may need exhaustive rehearsals. Playing slow bowling is one of them.
It’s not as if India haven’t fared well in that category. Since the 2019 World Cup, Rohit Sharma averages 56.62, Shubman Gill 41.6 and Virat Kohli 38 per dismissal by slow bowlers in ODIs. Those are largely acceptable numbers since slow bowlers come into the fore around the 15-over mark by when the top-order normally gives way to the middle-order.
But Pakistan—currently No 1 in ODIs—have better numbers during the same phase: Imam-ul-Haq averages 61.63, Fakhar Zaman 58.75 and Babar Azam 50.63. That they have more hundreds than India’s top three since 2019 suggests Pakistan’s top order is used to batting deeper with greater returns, which can only happen when they play slow bowling well.
India have recently found a semblance of middle-order stability, anchored by KL Rahul’s brief but strong run in this Asia Cup, but he too averages 26 per dismissal by slow bowlers since the 2019 World Cup.
These numbers, of course, are four-year aggregates which don’t adequately reflect recent turnarounds. Pakistan’s spinners were picked apart by India on a pitch that had a little bit of grass but once the action shifted to a drier pitch where the ball was gripping, the collapse against Sri Lanka—losing all 10 wickets to slow bowlers—was a troubling reminder of India’s dwindling skill to play probing spin.
You could say it has happened enough times and, in enough ways, to not become an overbearing factor given India’s lopsided ODI record. But the manner in which India folded—213 all out from 80/0—and the way some of their top batters were dismissed may warrant a bit of dissection. The pitch wasn’t easy too, with its two-paced nature apart from offering sharp turn.
“We knew the pitch would assist turn but didn’t anticipate it would turn so much,” Paras Mhambrey, India’s bowling coach, said in a press conference on Thursday. “The first wicket had a bit of grass. Under lights, it becomes difficult to bat. We utilised those conditions better than Pakistan. Against Sri Lanka, it was quite dry and had less grass. It turned quite a bit, especially in the first half.”
Rohit Sharma was probably unlucky with the ball skidding low off the surface but both Kohli and Rahul were dismissed either hurrying into their shot or trying to check it at the last second. Gill and Hardik Pandya, meanwhile, came on the front foot and played inside the line of slow left-arm bowler Dunith Wellalage’s deliveries instead of trying to cover the trajectory on their backfoot. That all top four right-handed batters—Sharma, Gill, Kohli and Rahul—were dismissed by a left-arm bowler despite the volume of match-up data at their disposal doesn’t augur well for India. But the problem could be as molecular as not being able to play the turning ball off the pitch.
“This is becoming a pattern,” Gautam Gambhir said on Star Sports during the Sri Lanka match. “You remember that match against Australia in Chennai when the ball was gripping a bit and India were chasing some 260 odd runs (269) against spinners like Adam Zampa and Ashton Agar. And we couldn’t chase it (India were dismissed for 248). Whenever the ball grips, we struggle and we don’t even know whether we can take the game deep,” he said.
India weren’t even chasing against Sri Lanka, which only validates Gambhir’s argument that this might be a mindset issue. But the solution isn’t difficult either, according to Gambhir. “If you deliver it closer to the wicket then it becomes easier, but when you deliver it wider from the crease then it becomes difficult,” he said. “And that is why it is necessary to play it off the backfoot rather than the front foot, where both the edges are tested.”
India won on Tuesday but Rohit Sharma made no bones about being challenged on many fronts.“We definitely want to play on pitches like this to see what we can achieve,” he had said after the match.
As much as the pitch at Colombo’s R Premadasa may have played its part, India’s undoing largely stemmed from their struggle against a slow left-arm bowler and two off-spinners in Maheesh Theekshana and Charith Asalanka. With Bangladesh featuring like-for-like, if not more experienced bowlers in Shakib Al Hasan (slow left-arm), Nasum Ahmed (slow left-arm) and Mehidy Hasan Miraz (off-break), Friday’s match is another opportunity for India to raise their game against slow bowling.