The real purpose of India's tour to Australia begins today
The real purpose of India's visit to Australia that begins on Tuesday with the two countries getting into the shortest mode of cricket in preparation for the World Twenty20 in India in a month's time.
Results-wise the just concluded five-match One-Day International (ODI) series may have been a big disappointment. By winning the last match, the Indians stayed No 2 in the one-day rankings. Even the four matches they lost, they could have won with a little effort, having done half the job.
The top-order batting looked good in the 50-overs game and the same in-form stroke-makers will be there in the three 20 overs matches, though they may not have Ajinkya Rahane, who is nursing an injury, and Manish Pandey, surprisingly not in the selectors' scheme of things.
Team director Ravi Shastri says if Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Ashish Nehra do not fit into the team management's calculations they may not play, whatever that may mean. He wants to see as many players as possible before the big event.
Yuvraj and Nehra will get in as true specialists, but Harbhajan will have to wait and see how Ravichandran Ashwin bowls his four overs after being hit all over in the one-dayers.
The Indians will miss Mohammed Shami just as they missed him the one-day series. He was replaced by young Jasprit Bumrah who had an excellent debut game in Sydney on Saturday. They will also be without Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Himachal's Rishi Dhawan has been asked to stay back.
Four top-order batsmen scored six hundreds in the five matches India played in the bilateral One-Day series. Man of the series Rohit Sharma, and Virat Kohli hit two centuries each and the two could have easily added one more.
Rohit, who aggregated 441 runs in the series, averaging 110.25, missed a third century by a single run in the last match in Sydney and Virat Kohli had missed it by nine runs in the first game in Perth.
The only match-winning century for the Indians was struck by Pandey, coming in for the injured Rahane in the fifth match at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The selectors seem to have taken Pandey's unhappiness over getting tagged as Twenty20 specialist seriously by not considering him for the squad.
The other century-maker in the ODI series was Shikhar Dhawan just when there was talk of him being dropped after failing in the first two matches.
Yet, for all the spectacular batting performances, India lost the series 1-4! They may feel that there is no justice in the world, though not justifiably, as they lost three of the four matches in which they raised 300 plus totals before winning the fifth one chasing a record 331-run target.
In the end, they fell short of 300 by five runs, they looked good to win for a fair distance in Melbourne. Actually, they should have won the next match at Canberra chasing 348, the highest total of the series. But they fell shy by 25 runs, losing the last nine wickets for 46 runs from 277/1.
A close scrutiny of the scores clearly indicates that the series scoreline should have been 2-3 if not 3-2 for India. Strictly speaking, India should have defended their big score in one of the first two matches and should have won the fourth after one hell of a chase.
The Indians will have none but themselves to blame for the messing up. Yes, there are a lot of ifs and buts. For one, the Australians played in their backyard where the Indians seldom had things going their way, except in 2008 when they won 2-0 in a three-match tri-series finals.
If all the mainline batsmen are guilty of not batting the opponents out of the matches, the man who is known to do the job nonchalantly, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, is being held responsible for not finishing the game in Canberra. He was extra careful in Sydney. The flair was missing and all the same he played one of those Indian Premier League (IPL) knocks of pushing and prodding to take the game into the final over before typically smashing a much-needed six when 13 were required.
Dhoni's six was enough for Pandey to use his cricketing sense to steer the next ball by Mitchell Marsh to the vacant third-man boundary. Needing three more, he hit over the top for the winning four.
The figures tell it all, Pandey stroked his fifty off 38 balls and hundred in 80 when his peers were a little more circumspect. Pandey's hundred is the fastest of the series, coming in 80 balls.
As Pandey admitted after the match, he gained confidence seeing Dhoni encouraging him from the other end and all those who have seen him play in the Ranji Trophy or the IPL would have expected him to perform the way he did.
Come to think of it, he is the first batsman to hit a hundred in the IPL. Another certificate for his big-match temperament is winning the IPL final for Kolkata Knight Riders. To top it all, he is a livewire in the field and a fantastic runner between the wickets.
Just as India lost the third game in Melbourne because of some poor cricket, the Australians got nervy in Sydney, dropping a couple of regulation catches in the deep.
The one big difference between the sides was the depth in Australia's batting and go-to bowlers in the death overs. The Indian bowlers came in for stick, though the Australians were hit around the park with the same intensity.
Somehow, the Australians seemed to snatch the key moments, be it bowling the last 10 overs or slogging it out to keep their nose ahead. The Indians had no clue how to approach the two crucial aspects of the one-day cricket.
The other problem of the Indians was the middle overs where they just could not get wickets or restrict run flow. That is largely because their most dependable bowler at home, Ravichandran Ashwin, just could not get going. Consciously, the batsmen went after him and there was little he could do on flatter wickets.
In a country where over one billion have their say on every aspect of cricket and politics, an influential voice started baying for Dhoni's blood and some of them predictably do not seem to like the hairstyle of India's only successful captain in all three formats.
Anticipating this shrill campaign against him, the selectors just as well decided well in advance that Dhoni will stay as captain till the World Twenty20 in March-April.
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)
Indo-Asian News Service