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India’s wrecking-ball strike-bowlers have prompted sixth-bowler debate

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Barring Shami, India's bowlers have struggled

ICC

India’s wrecking-ball strike-bowlers have prompted sixth-bowler debate

Interestingly, India’s series with Australia often glaringly shows them the holes in the playing XI, which usually goes under the radar in other cases. This tour is no different, with India’s depth being questioned, both with the bat and the ball, on the back of two indifferent shows.

Let’s dial back in history, 2016 at Sydney, the same place where India are being trashed twice in three days, a relatively unknown bowler - Jasprit Bumrah - made his debut in unknown territory. Everyone had heard his name in the country but none away from it, none so sure how well he would do in Australia, one of the fiercest territories for a touring team. He stood his ground, he delivered and left like a star - he was then destined to be successful on the world stage. 

Cut to 2020, India are on the back of five straight defeats in overseas conditions, their bowlers have looked like a wrecking ball - especially their strike-bowlers. Bumrah and Mohammed Shami have looked a mickey-self of themselves in successive away tours and, as a result, India have succumbed to buffering defeats. If YouTube buffers had a face, it would feature the two Indian bowlers, that’s how bad they have been - in the last eight innings, they have conceded 476 runs, at an average of 158.66 in the first ten overs. 

In between the two series in 2016 and 2020, India have found themselves as a constant presence in the top three teams around the world, their bowling - in specific, their pace bowling - has made the headlines; Shami took a bulk of wickets in the 2019 ICC World Cup while Bumrah never made his presence look less important than in the same time period. And when it has gone bad, it has gone from bad to worse to absolutely pathetic.

The first episode of that, in New Zealand, against a strong Kiwi team at home. Shami averaged 63, Shardul Thakur averaged 56.75 and Bumrah averaged infinity because he did not pick a single wicket throughout the series. As a result, India were thrashed mightily, their first-ever series whitewash in three decades. The story was destined to stop ahead of the series against Australia, thanks to Bumrah and Shami’s form in the IPL but things took a different turn - Bumrah averages 76 and Shami averages 33. Their form has taken a tumble dry but it’s not just them. 

India’s dependency on the two has been a well-documented part of their success, so it has to take an equal share in their losses as well. With an injury to Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the duo have had to do it all against Australia. In the absence of their show, the fans have called for a sixth-bowling option but is the sixth-bowling option going to make a dramatic difference? No, because the damage by then is done and dusted, when India picked Navdeep Saini in the playing XI, after a disastrous IPL. Even the best of Saini in Australia would have been a disaster - especially for what he has to offer. Australia is no more the conditions where pacers would walk in confidently with just one variation under their sleeve. 

It’s no more an episode from Fast and Furious, which would lead teams to a victory. Look at Australia’s own bowling attack from the first game. Their best bowler was Adam Zampa and the second-best, Josh Hazlewood. This underlines the importance of having a bowler who sticks to his line and length. If Zampa didn’t succeed the way he did, Australia too would have had a bad result, given that their third bowling option, in the form of Mitchell Starc, was struggling. That’s where the Indian management needs to buckle up their knowledge and play to the conditions. Sydney does not offer anything, whatsoever to the bowlers, so the need of the hour is variations from the bowlers. 

In the absence of a plethora of choices, India have two great options that they could stick with - one of which is to draft in Deepak Chahar, pick him and play him as an out and out swing bowler in the powerplay, which will help Virat Kohli to fiddle around with his options in the middle-overs. And it will start with the removal of Navdeep Saini. Not because Saini is particularly bad but because Saini offers nothing different compared to Bumrah and Shami, who already bowl 20 overs. Chahar has had a slow start to his ODI career but has already proved in his T20 stint that he’s a genuine wicket-taker with the new ball. 

Another option that has been screaming loud is Shardul Thakur, who not only doubles up as a perfect middle-over bowler but also as a useful batsman towards the end of the innings, one that is right in India’s alley. With Ravindra Jadeja’s overs in the middle not resulting in wickets, Thakur, with a plethora of bowling variations in his arsenal, might help India up the ante. Combined with his cross-seamers and the bigger boundaries, Thakur might only benefit from the pressure created by the opening bowler, which Saini hasn’t done so far. Thus far in the two ODIs, if Saini has done anything, he has released the pressure off the Australian batsmen, who from thereon have propelled on to post skyscrapers of totals. 

With India having zero confidence in the likes of Shivam Dube and Vijay Shankar, it has put them under the immense pressure of having to do with just five specialist bowlers. So with Hardik Pandya steadily getting back to progress, the management needs to start acting on their feet. In the limited options that they have, India more than certainly have the force to shake-up their bowling unit for the third ODI. But, alas, at least for now, they have left it too late.

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