Shoaib Malik caught a lot of flak after putting India in to bat first in the third ODI at Kanpur. The last time these two teams played there, India chose to bat first and got bowled out cheaply. Teams batting first have averaged only 225 on the Green Park strip because of the overnight moisture. Dire warnings about how the pitch crumbles in the afternoon prompts teams to bat first, but these have always proven unfounded. It gets dustier and slower, but paradoxically easier. In fact the spinners too are usually more effective in the first innings when the pitch has more bite. Pakistan lost despite putting India in to bat, and not because of it, in my view.
There were other reasons for the loss. Ganguly being dropped off the first ball was vital, because that could have opened the floodgates on a track helping the pacers in the morning. Although both Ganguly and Tendulkar perished after getting set, they gave India a rollicking start and also saw off the main dangermen - Umar Gul and Shoaib Akhtar.
The second factor was the way Yuvraj and Dhoni went after the spinners around the 34th over. This was awesome batting, but then Pakistan played only one fulltime spinner unlike India's strategy of using two experienced ones even at the cost of playing one batsman less. Shoaib Malik and Shahid Afridi are part-timers and their limitations got exposed. Even then, I thought Malik did well to bring back the pacers as soon as the onslaught began. He gambled on getting rid of Yuvraj and Dhoni before being forced to complete the spinners' quota. Shoaib did get Dhoni, but not before he sent a few more to the fence. Yuvraj however stayed almost till the end and made the big difference. Malik can't be faulted entirely for using the left-arm spinner Rahman at the end, because he did beat Yuvraj in flight to get him caught at square leg. But his last two overs went for 30 runs and I wonder if Afridi, being more street-smart, might have handled the pressure of bowling to Pathan and Uthappa better.
Malik also failed to utilise Afridi's batting, by sending him out to open. Afridi is even more erratic in his batting these days, and to expect him to suddenly do his stuff against the new ball was asking for too much. Any deviation catches him out, as Pathan reconfirmed. Afridi can thump the old ball, off both spinners and medium-pacers. Besides, his presence low down in the order is a constant menace to the opposition who know they can never assume the game is in control. These are the same reasons why I think India should employ Sehwag down the order instead of opening.
Now, turning to the other captain, Dhoni, I think he's lucky to be 2-1 up in the series and also lucky to have caught more bouquets than brickbats. In Kanpur, India's shortage of batsmen might have shown if the Dhoni-Yuvraj partnership had been broken earlier. These two have combined in two outstanding partnerships to give India both its victories in the three matches so far. To expect them to do that again would bne stretching the law of averages. I think Dhoni got the combination right in Mohali where we did get 321 even though we lost the game. Sehwag should again play in place of one of the bowlers in the next two ODIs. Gwalior is usually a spinners' track, and so one of the left-arm pacers should sit out there. In Jaipur, I would bench Murali Kartik.
Of course, having won the last ODI, Dhoni is likely to stick to the five-bowler format. If he manages to win the series in spite of that, it would validate Wasim Akram's pre-series analysis, pointing out weaknesses in Pakistan's bowling, with Shoaib Akhtar not fully fit, and no wicket-taking spinner like Danesh Kaneria in their ranks.
Dhoni I thought escaped brickbats for losing the game in Mohali, which all analysts predictably blamed on the bowlers. I think India lost by choosing to bat first. We have seen before that heavy dew in winter day-nighters in the north makes any total impossible to defend. India came close to winning only because of Pakistan's ineptitude, first in Rao Ifthikar dishing out half-volleys for Harbhajan to smash 38, and then a couple of set batsmen, including centurion Younis Khan, getting out to wild shots in the end although the asking rate never went out of hand.
Not so long ago, Ganguly was not only criticised for losing, but also suffered a ban due to an excruciatingly slow over-rate after he chose to bat first in a day-nighter at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata against Pakistan to mark the BCCI centenary. So it's quite a contrast that Dhoni got away scot-free after winning the toss and making India lose by bowling and fielding in the heavy Mohali dew.
The thing with heavy dew is that once the ball and pitch get wet, there's no movement at all both for medium-pacers and spinners. So the batsmen can simply play through the line of the ball. And since the ball zips on to the bat after pitching, it flies to the fence faster too. This is going to be a major factor in the next two ODIs which are day-nighters. I don't know much about how heavy the dew gets in Gwalior, which has traditionally favoured spinners, but certainly in Jaipur it will be a big advantage to bat second. In fact, day-nighters in such conditions, which favour one side to such an extent, become meaningless.
Going by India's record in such matches, fans will be praying India loses the toss and Pakistan chooses to bat first, having lost while chasing at Kanpur. Somebody should analyse the number of games India has lost in the last two years after winning the toss. I suspect it would be around two-thirds of the time, which would be ironical because it's supposed to be an advantage to win the toss.