The positive news, for Indian cricket fans: Rohit Sharma’s team is in the second round of the 2023 Asia Cup. The worrying news: they are there after successive struggles in two matches – one a washout, the second a DL win over Nepal – and do not look like challenging the pre-tournament favourites, Pakistan.
As forecast, the rain in scenic Pallekele played a dampener over a cracking India versus Pakistan Asia Cup contest on Saturday night, at the halfway stage of which the target for the number No 1 ranked ODI team was 267 from 50 overs. The amount of rain during the innings change-over and thereafter, however, ended up forcing an abandonment at a stage where fans of this storied rivalry were hoping for, at the least, a 20-over shootout. That would have left Pakistan to chase a D/L-revised target of 155 in 20 overs which, given the damp conditions and wet ball, would have put Pakistan in the driver’s seat given how chasing has become the norm in T20 cricket these days.
The washout handed each team one point each while putting Pakistan into the Super Four stage of the Asia Cup, and India needing to beat Nepal on Monday. They were unable to do so because the incessant rain did not allow a full game, but on the evidence of how India’s bowlers struggled to dismiss 15th-ranked Nepal for 230, there is plenty to fret about.
The problems for India in the Pakistan match were familiar ones, chiefly the top order’s susceptibility to left-arm pace. After the first rain delay, the match resumed and Shaheen Shah Afridi nipped out Rohit with a beauty of a delivery and then had Virat Kohli chopping on tentatively with an angled bat. India’s two batting superstars once again came undone against the most obvious of Pakistan’s threats, and the wobble had set in. Shreyas Iyer, in his first match since March, looked good before he slapped a short ball from Haris Rauf straight to midwicket. A very off-colour Shubman Gill was put out of his misery by the same bowler, who breached his forward press and sent him trudging off for 10 from 32 deliveries.
That India turned around a woeful score of 66 for 4 to 266 for 4 was down almost entirely to Ishan Kishan and Hardik Pandya, who put on 138 for the fifth wicket. Kishan, only playing because of injury to KL Rahul, batted at No 5 and smacked a rousing 82 off 81 balls. Pandya, the vice-captain, batted very responsibly for 87 off 90 deliveries, before he was part of a three-wicket collapse in no time during the backend of the innings.
Kudos to Kishan and Pandya, but the struggles of India’s top order against left-arm pace are impossible to ignore, primarily because after suffering at the hands of this unique skill (Champions Trophy final 2017, World Cup final 2019, T20 World Cup 2021) the team does not seem to have really improved.
Cut to the Nepal match. India’s start on Monday was truly sloppy. Three catches were put down inside five overs, with Kohli’s drop at cover the real eye-opener. On a flat batting deck, India’s pacers ran in and tried to unsettle the Nepal openers with some short-pitched deliveries but most of them were swatted away with glee by Kushal Bhurtel and Aasif Sheikh during a rousing alliance of 65 in 9.5 overs. It makes you wonder what the top orders of Australia, England and South Africa will do if similar conditions present themselves during the World Cup.
That India were able to pull Nepal back was chiefly because Ravindra Jadeja nipped out three wickets in five overs. Not doing much except varying his speed, Jadeja forced Nepal’s batsmen into indiscretion and the score slipped from 77 for 1 to 101 for 4 by the 22nd over. But a fighting 48 from Sompal Kami and a couple of handy cameos lifted the total to 230, which can be considered solid progress by Nepal against the No 3 ODI team.
A rain-revised target of 145 in 23 overs was, refreshingly, achieved by ten wickets with Rohit and Shubman Gill hitting brisk half-centuries. Both batsmen have struggled of late, and it was good to see them not throw away their wickets while bullying Nepal’s bowlers. But how many will be convinced by Rohit and Gill getting fifties against the 15th ranked team in ODIs, two days later they were made to look like novices by Pakistan’s pace attack?
The lack of clear plan during the first 15 overs was startling. Mohammed Shami looked like a bowler who had not played cricket for two months. Mohammed Siraj looked like a bowler coming off a month’s leave. Shardul Thakur got the opening but looked lackluster. Short balls had no real message, except ‘hit me’. The fact that Rohit could be seen telling his pacers to pitch the ball up said it all. Did India’s pacers learn nothing from the way in which Afridi and Naseem bowled to them in the first 15 overs at this very ground?
In successive matches of the Asia Cup, India’s top order and pace bowling weakness have been exposed. They are in the Super Fours, yes, but they enter round two without any dominance performances. Beating Nepal cannot mask the fact that this is a team struggling to win ODI matches. They lost to Australia at home in March and were not at all convincing as they beat a second-string West Indies in the Caribbean. And now, two muddled performances in Pallekele.
Time to press the emergency button? Not yet, because there are games to play in Sri Lanka and then three versus Australia, before the World Cup. But India’s lackadaisical approach and repeated top-order struggles are repeating themselves too often for the team to be considered as World Cup hopefuls.