We said right here on YS Sportlight five days before the Wellington Test, that MS Dhoni should play four seamers. We said he wasn’t going to win a Test abroad with only three wicket-taking bowlers. We said the three seamers would run out of steam if a partnership developed.
Dhoni paid no heed to our article, or it never came to his attention. He went into the Wellington Test one-nil down in the series with the usual three-seamers-and-a-spinner bowling combination.
India were lucky to win the toss and put New Zealand in to bat on a green wicket. They were bowled out for 192 in two sessions, and the stamina of the three Indian seamers wasn’t tested.
India made 438, for a 246-run lead, and had New Zealand on the mat at 94 for 5 in the second innings. Then the bug kicked in – Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling got a partnership going, and India’s seamers did not have the energy to deliver the knockout blow after bowling their hearts out to get India into a winning position.
This was déjà vu for Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami. In Johannesburg a couple of months earlier, they had brought India to the verge of a rare victory in South Africa, before a double century partnership between AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis took it away.
But how can a fourth seamer force a win if three others can’t, you might ask. By sharing the workload of taking 20 wickets, that’s how. In Johannesburg, the seamers took all the wickets for India, while the fourth bowler, Ravichandran Ashwin, bowled 42 wicketless overs. And now in Wellington, Zaheer, Ishant and Shami shared 17 wickets between them, while India’s spinner, Ravindra Jadeja, took the solitary wicket of all-rounder Cory Andersen in his 54 overs.
The way Dhoni keeps going ‘Badhiya, Jad’ or ‘Nice bowling, Jaddu’ suggests that he doesn’t even expect a wicket from him; he’s happy when the spinner manages to keep things tight. This is a negative mindset, and India can’t win a Test abroad until that changes.
Jadeja doesn’t flight the ball, and relies on a rough or spongy surface to grip the ball and make it turn. He was never going to get that in Wellington, so what was the point of playing him in a must-win Test for India to square the series?
We said as much in YS Sportlight’s ‘What Dhoni can learn from Facebook’s biggest mistake‘ before the Test: “What the Indian captain needs are four wicket-taking bowlers, and the ones most likely to deliver currently are seamers on tours abroad.”
Both in Johannesburg and Wellington, Dhoni would have been far better off with a fourth attack option rather than a defensive spinner, when he was in a winning position. What’s more, Bhuvneshwar Kumar would have given him a right arm swing bowling option to go with the left-handed swinger Zak, the tall Ishant, and the 140 kmph hit-the-deck Shami.
That’s good variety. But instead of appreciating what he has, Dhoni keeps lamenting the fact that India doesn’t have a batsman who can be the fourth seamer – like a Cory Anderson for New Zealand, or a Jacques Kallis for South Africa, or a Shane Watson for Australia.
What India can do abroad is to use a batsman to bowl a few overs of spin, and play four seamers. Had they done that, it’s almost certain they would have won in Johannesburg and Wellington, and possibly Auckland too, where New Zealand were 30 for 3 on the first day before recovering with another long partnership.
It’s not batting or bowling that let India down as much as wrong strategy and cliched thinking. Dhoni has all the resources he needs to win Test series outside Asia, once he breaks free from a formulaic approach and defensive mindset. Now, after the fourth failure in a row on overseas tours, maybe he will.
YS Sportlight will keep throwing ideas his way, as well as yours. Decoding strategy through sports can be a useful exercise in thinking outside the box to come up with winning solutions. Do bookmark this column to see how often we get to say, ‘We told you so’, like we’re unashamedly doing after the Wellington Test. It’s not often that a Test match so closely follows a pattern laid out in a column five days earlier. If you have ‘told-you-so’ moments like that, do share them in the comments below.