Can India Really Win the World Cup with a Shaky Middle Order?

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Can India Really Win the World Cup with a Shaky Middle Order?

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

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L Rahul’s is perhaps the most interesting case in Indian cricket of late. Over the last couple of years, several attempts have been made to fit him into the ODI team. Many believe, strictly in terms of ability and potential, Rahul is not far off India’s two most iconic batting superstars Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. But the ability is quite evidently taking a little too long to consistently translate into performances.

For a long time since India’s humiliating defeat in the 2017 Champions Trophy final, Rahul was only thought of as a back-up opener to the enviably solid pair of Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan. It was argued his game was more suitable to exploit the field restrictions at the start of an innings as opposed to finding gaps in the middle overs to keep the scoreboard ticking.

However, after a frustratingly tedious round of musical chairs, which saw one name too many occupy the No 4 slot in the Indian batting order, Rahul was brought back to play the very role at the World Cup. It will not be unfair to say Rahul mainly benefitted from being out of the team for the better part of 2019 as all other alternatives failed to grab their opportunities.

But even before Rahul could repay the faith extended by the selectors, he has had to be asked to open the innings again after a thumb fracture cut Dhawan’s tournament short. This means India once again find themselves in the familiar territory of an uncertain middle order and despite having secured a qualification to the semi-finals with one game to spare, a lot of questions still remain unanswered.

A formidable bowling attack and two incredibly consistent batsmen in the top order has meant India’s middle order shortcomings – although exposed – have not really cost them big so far. In each game India has played in this campaign, at least one of Sharma and Kohli has registered a 50+ score. In the last game against Sri Lanka Rahul also scored a century. The rest of the batting has done rather well batting around them and put enough runs on board for the most potent bowling attack in the tournament to defend.

However, should the pattern of the top three batsmen firing in every single game break, does India have adequate alternate sources to find runs from? Statistically, there is little reason to be confident. Sharma and Kohli have so far accounted for 47 per cent of the team’s runs. Of the top four teams on the table as of now, Australia have showed similar dependence on Aaron Finch and David Warner (43 per cent). But, in Steven Smith they still have some guaranteed runs in the bank come the business end of the tournament. India unfortunately do not have a Smith they can fall back to.

Of the seven completed games India have played, the middle order (No 4 to 7) has averaged 34 runs per game. In the last game against Lanka, they had little role to play. The number is not too far off Australia’s (31) – another team that heavily relies on its top order. However, the Indian middle order accumulates these runs only at a collective strike rate of 100. Their Australian counterpart is significantly ahead here scoring eight more runs per 100 balls. Considering the batting strength Australia possess even further down the order as opposed to the Indian tail that comprises four walking wickets, the numbers look even more striking.

A couple of years ago, India’s real concern in the middle order was the inability to consolidate on a solid foundation laid by the top order while batting first. With the inclusion of Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya, they no longer lack firepower in their ranks. As was seen during the games against Australia and Pakistan, India successfully built on a strong platform and managed to put a total out of the opposition’s reach. However, there is a real question mark over the pedigree of both Pant and Pandya when it comes to playing out over a longer stretch of overs if Sharma and Kohli fail to bat for long enough.

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It is often a painful sight to see him struggle in the middle and yet refusing to rotate strike backing his ability to hit it big eventually.

Andy Kearns/Getty Image

Which brings us to the elephant in the room. MS Dhoni was the Man of the Series when India played three ODIs in Australia earlier this year. The concerns over Dhoni’s form and doubts over his place in the team were thus put to rest; or so we were told. Dhoni still has value on slower surfaces in low-scoring contests where he can hold an end up worrying little about his strike rate. On truer surfaces however, he for the lack of a better word is a liability more often than not.

His problems compound further when it comes to chasing. Since the end of Champions Trophy in 2017, Dhoni’s strike rate while chasing has been 71. It is often a painful sight to see him struggle in the middle and yet refusing to rotate strike backing his ability to hit it big eventually. With Kedar Jadhav being dropped from the playing XI in the game against Bangladesh, India picked Ravindra Jadeja. 

In its current composition hence, India can ill afford to trust its middle order to bail them out in the event of a collapse while batting first or put it under extreme pressure of a high asking rate while chasing. This forces both Sharma and Kohli to embrace a peculiarly conservative approach regardless of the game situation, as was seen during the uphill chase against England.

Either way, the management has utterly failed at both harnessing and then backing the right candidate for the No 4 slot.

India had the choice to push Pant to open in the dead rubber against Sri Lanka and explore the possibility of adding solidity in the middle order by bringing Rahul back to No 4. But they stuck to the methods they have trusted thus far. 

Either way, the management has utterly failed at both harnessing and then backing the right candidate for the No 4 slot. They have also failed at moving on from seniors well past their prime. This has left a middle order vacuum, which could prove to be decisive in a knockout game as it happened in the Champions Trophy final a couple of years ago. In which case, both Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri will have a lot to answer for.

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