When Rahul Dravid took over as India’s head coach in November, he claimed his primary job for the first few months would be to sit back and observe. Moments after his team was blanked 3-0 in the ODIs in South Africa on Sunday, he termed the series as an eye-opener.
The Indian team landed in Johannesburg in mid-December as overwhelming favourites, much like the travelling Australian sides at the turn of this century. Forty days later, a spirited South African team – battling cultural and cricketing issues – has exposed the soft underbelly of the Indian team. The much-ignored chronic problems in India’s white-ball cricket, suddenly flared up, exposing the frailties in a system that was working fine for years.
An undercooked middle-order and the lack of sixth-bowling option have been hurting India’s white-ball cricket for a while but what this tour has done is it has also brought the lack of clarity to the surface. The lack of ODI cricket in the past two years has been the go to alibi for this team though.
The Indian selectors, while removing Virat Kohli as the ODI captain, were wary about ‘too much leadership’. As it turned out, the team grappled with very little leadership as KL Rahul looking subdued as the stand-in captain on the field. It has not happened very often that the head coach has become the most important figure in the dressing room by default.
Dravid, for all his efforts to stay in the background, has been faced with difficult questions throughout the tour. It’s now more about deciding on the brand of cricket that this team wants to play and identifying the personnel to do so.
“Yeah, we understand the template. We certainly could do better with our batting in middle overs,” Dravid conceded on Sunday. “Obviously, a large part of the template is also dependant on the balance of your squad. I think some of the guys who help us balance the squad and give us those all-round options at No. 6, 7 and 8 were probably not here,” he added.
The template that’s been talked about is the one that takes the game forward at all times. There’s very little scope for conservative cricket in the contemporary world. That Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli and KL Rahul could not convert their steady starts left too much to do for the young middle-order manned by Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer.
Lack of wickets with the ball and ineffective batting in the middle-overs are now the problems diagnosed from this tour.
Iyer struggled to get going in the three matches and Pant’s shot-selection, his enterprising 85 in the second ODI notwithstanding, has forever been under scrutiny. But here’s the catch. Both of them have played 25 and 21 ODIs respectively over a span of four years with the Indian team.
Iyer and Pant are entrusted to play the enforcer’s role and are the best bets for the future. But the top-three scoring at a strike rate of 8085 adds more pressure on these young boys.
“We have been trying to give them an extended run. On this trip, we didn’t really change the middle order and Surya got a game in the last one but otherwise we didn’t really change the batting order,” Dravid pointed out.
But Dravid’s statement came with a rider: “Once you give them that consistency and security, you also got to demand performances, really big performances and that is an expectation you have when you play at this level, when you play for your country. You have to put in big performances and that’s a requirement. But the idea is to give as much stability as you can.”
This tour had eerie similarity to Dravid’s last tour of South Africa as captain in 2006-07 when things went downhill drastically after an emphatic Test win. It came on the heels of the 2007 World Cup where his team imploded without putting up much of a fight.
This time, as coach, he has more time to figure things out and set the house in order. He is well aware of the resources in Indian cricket but the ‘sit-back-and-observe’ phase is over.