Performances against this West Indies side that is searching for its soul after missing out on a World Cup berth for the first time may not flatter. Yet, there were a couple of encouraging signs for Rohit Sharma from the first ODI at Barbados where India clinched a five-wicket victory in their chase of 115.
With the World Cup looming, every tiny aspect is bound to be under lens. And to start off, so was the decision to open the bowling with Hardik Pandya despite having Umran Malik and Shardul Thakur in the XI. In the bigger picture, i.e. the World Cup, it is one that is bound to generate interest as Pandya as a new-ball bowler – he is used to bowling in the IPL for Gujarat Titans – has shown a tendency to be effective in slow conditions where the odd ball stops a bit. For a seamer who prefers pitching it on the hard length or the back of the length, if Pandya manages to hits the right spots, he can be counted on to send down a few quiet overs in the first powerplay, especially if India play with only three seam bowling options in the XI. On Thursday, it brought him the wicket of Kyle Mayers.
And after Mukesh Kumar and Shardul Thakur gave India two more openings, Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav took over.
That special feeling of a debut wicket!
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The two are contrasting left-arm spinners. The former is an orthodox, whose bowling performances have been dipping of late in white-ball that there have been calls to include Axar Patel over him. Since the last 50-over World Cup, Jadeja averages 54.86 with the ball and has an economy rate of 5.27, which is half more than his career. In the 21 matches prior to the one in Bridgetown, he had only 15 wickets in 21 matches. The inability of Jadeja to hold one end has been giving India the headache as he is banked upon to deliver 10 overs. For a World Cup on home soil, Jadeja needed some confidence behind his back and the pitch gave him enough of it on Thursday.
The slow pitch helped the ball grip and turn, which allowed Jadeja to come into the game straightaway. Shimron Hetmyer first gifted him a wicket by going for a paddle, exposing all three stumps as Jadeja’s slower one arrived well after the batsman was through with the shot.
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And then bowling those full deliveries that he relies on in long format to draw the batsman forward, he got the wickets of Rovman Powell and Romario Shepherd in the same over. What stood out more than the wickets were his impeccable control; all his deliveries landed on the full, good length and short of good length areas. In all, only two of his deliveries in the six overs he sent down landed on the leg-stump channel to right-handers and left-handers.
If Jadeja broke the middle, Kuldeep took care of providing the finishing touches. The left-arm wrist-spinner, who appeared to have lost his way post the last 50-over World Cup, was top of Rohit’s interest ever since he took over as captain. A spinner for whom confidence is of foremost importance, there was always an element of unknown prior to the series as to how he would respond. After having a successful Test returns in Bangladesh and in the limited-overs at home, Kuldeep didn’t have a good IPL, where he picked up only 10 wickets.
In the past, where he ended up short on confidence during the IPL, it has carried it on to the national scheme of things that has seen him end up warming the bench. But over the past six months Kuldeep has shown signs of maturing as a spinner, where he is now able to land the deliveries more consistently on the same spot and is patient enough to keep delivering his stock ball before slipping in the one that turns away from the right-hander.
And there is a reason why Rohit wants Kuldeep at his best as in a World Cup where you play each opponent only once, he can be the trump card in the middle-overs and also take care of the tail. Given the variations he has up his sleeves, Kuldeep can be hard to pick as unlike bilaterals, teams don’t get to play him day-in and day-out.
Two of Kuldeep’s four wickets came via wrong-un and when he wasn’t bowling those googlies, he teased the lower-order batsmen with flight. And it is what Kuldeep delivered once more as West Indies were dismissed for 114 in 23 overs. In the chase, India kept back Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, preferring to give chances to others, but at 97 for 5, the Indian captain had to walk out to guide them home in the company of Jadeja.