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Four takeaways for India from the SA ODI series: Rahane should be undroppable; Dhoni should still captain

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Four takeaways for India from the SA ODI series: Rahane should be undroppable; Dhoni should still captain

India cricket team

The Freedom ODI series between India and South Africa was action-packed, hard-fought and for the majority of the five matches, thoroughly entertaining. But for MS Dhoni and his men, it marks a second consecutive loss in an ODI series following the defeat in Bangladesh.
India’s Ajinkya Rahane plays a shot during the fifth ODI. AFP

India’s Ajinkya Rahane plays a shot during the fifth ODI. AFP

India produced just one complete game – in the fourth ODI – and struggled for consistency with their batting, and their batting line-up, in particular. After the series, Dhoni said it was necessary to experiment because the team was still discovering its potential and that the process was more important than getting results at this stage. Be that as it may, the stats don’t care about the process and a series loss is a series loss and heaps more pressure on Dhoni as the limited-overs captain.

Now that the dust has settled after South Africa’s record-breaking spree in the series decider, here are Firstpost’s takeaways about the India team:

Ajinkya Rahane has made himself undroppable

Over the last few months, no India batsman has been discussed more than Ajinkya Rahane. From dropping him in Bangladesh, to his non-selection in the T20Is against South Africa, to moving him up and down the lineup in the ODI series, his place and position in the playing XI has been one of constant debate.

Rahane responded in the best possible manner with exceptional batting performances in the ODI series. Excluding the botched run-chase in Rajkot, Rahane played four knocks of very high quality, scoring 60, 51, 45 and 87. He also finished the series with a strike rate of 93.91 – significantly above his career strike rate – and a direct riposte to those who have claimed he scores too slowly

Everyone accepts that Rahane is the most improved India batsmen over the past eighteen months and there is an argument to be made for building the team around the three best batsmen India have – Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Rahane. Let them bat where they prefer to bat so the team can get the most of them. The rest of the line-up can be built around them.
It’s time stop over-analysing Rahane’s skills in the middle-order and saying it’s difficult to play him in the XI if not in the top three. Those explanations will merely be excuses from now on. Give Rahane a settled spot in the order and just let him be.

The all-rounder puzzle

“We have tried Stuart [Binny]. People have criticised that also, but if you look at all-rounders in India, who is your best seaming bowling all-rounder – it’s Stuart Binny and the two best spinning all rounders Ravinder Jadeja and Axar Patel.

“Whether you like it or not these are our best seaming and spinning all-rounders and we have to make the best out of them,” Dhoni said in the immediate aftermath of the carnage at Wankhede.

Binny was dropped after the first ODI and while Axar Patel managed five wickets with a decent economy rate of 5.27, the best of the three spinners, he continued to exhibit the batting skills of a tail-ender making just 37 runs from four innings at a pedestrian strike-rate of 74.

Despite India’s well documented issues with finding a capable all-rounder, there is an odd reluctance to try someone new in that position. Gurkeerat Singh is the closest to usurping the spot but Dhoni said he has to wait for his chance, though it is unclear why. If this series didn’t make it obvious enough, India need some fresh thinking and blooding a batsman who can be useful with the ball – think JP Duminy – could be the tonic India needs.

India’s new ball troubles

Watching young Kagiso Rabada bowl in this series made one thing clear – raw pace gets you nowhere without control and discipline. Rabada was scintillating through out the series but his most impressive attribute was his death bowling. He showed tactical maturity to dig it in short and at the body of the batsmen, before mixing it up with full, fast yorkers. As ESPNCricinfo pointed out, Rabada’s figures in the final five overs of the innings were 8-0-45-5. That’s an economy rate of 5.63 and a strike-rate 9.60.

India’s fast(er) bowlers, on the other hand, struggled at the top and the death. Wickets with the new ball were a rarity as Bhuvneshwar Kumar went about his reinvention as Shane Bond v2.0 instead of the clever swing bowler India discovered. Mohit Sharma, will never be the spearhead of a bowling attack – even Dhoni said he should be the third seamer.

The problem is compounded because the bowlers waiting in the wings have not set the cricket world alight either. Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron and Ishant Sharma have been inconsistent at best. Mohammad Shami seems to have gone completely off the radar after his injury early this year.

As Firstpost’s Tariq Engineer said after the defeat in Mumbai, it is difficult to explain what happens to fast bowlers in India after they reach the international stage, But as South Africa showed, India cannot keep thinking the only strategy they need at home is to pack the side with spinners.

The captaincy debate can wait

Even before the fifth match in Wankhede was over – South Africa still needed a couple of wickets – a news channel started a poll on Twitter asking if it was time for Dhoni to step down and for Kohli to take over. The poll, at least on Twitter, was met with the derision it deserved, with 64 percent users saying no and quite a few ridiculing the idea of getting into the debate even before the series defeat was complete.
MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli. AFP

MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli. AFP

Make no mistake; there is a debate to be had. This series loss, the first ever against South Africa at home, should hurt the India players and the captain most of all. The defeat in Wankhede will rankle as one of the worst under Dhoni’s captaincy.

But, in the bigger picture, it is worth remembering the series ended 3-2. There is a need to acknowledge that these were two highly talented teams going toe-to-toe against other. What-ifs in sport count for nothing, but there were occasions across the first four games that, had they swung in India’s favour, the team could have won the series.

By ignoring the fine margins by which the games were decided, we take the sheen away from a closely fought series. Besides, Dhoni’s inspirational performance in Indore showed that we shouldn’t write him off just yet.

Yes, Dhoni has showed there are chinks in his armour, both in his batting (he let Rabada outfox him throughout the series) and his captaincy (with selection calls and batting order changes). The defeat in Wankhede, however, showed there is only so much a captain can do when all his bowlers get mauled. There are questions that need to be asked and Dhoni will ask them but this is a team that made the World Cup semifinals just over six months ago.

India need to rethink their strategy and clean out a few cobwebs but there’s no need to burn down the whole house.

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