India’s middle-order poses a Dhoni-sized conundrum

June 24, 2019

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Many expected India to rack up the runs against Afghanistan as soon as they had elected to bat first.

After England’s run-fest against the Afghans in their previous game, some thought this would be a chance for India to follow suit; maybe a Rohit Sharma 200 to cap things off. In the end, the game proved much more instructive than a run-fest would have. India managed to come off with a victory but they were outplayed for most of the game. Rather than the two points, the lessons learnt should hold them in better stead for the rest of the tournament.

The middle order has long been a concern. The drawback of having the world’s best top-order (Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli) is their underbelly has not been exposed enough. Generally, the top three score the majority of the runs. Even in this Cricket World Cup, there has been a lengthy opening partnership in two games vs Australia and Pakistan. With Dhawan ruled out, it’s shifted a more cautious Lokesh Rahul to the top order. Dhawan’s dynamism allowed Rohit to play with more caution, an approach that suited both batsmen. Rohit has license to take his time at the top, for more often than not, it guarantees a big hundred. Rahul, however, is no Dhawan. He has been playing within himself and overcompensating when he should be playing with more freedom. Against Pakistan, Rohit took the mantle of aggression but he was gone early this game.

What Kohli does best is keeping the scoreboard ticking. That simple approach of finding the singles and doubles allows him to adjust to most ODI situations and is one of the reasons why he is the best batsman in the world. However, his partners rarely return the strike at the same rate. That means that Kohli, for all his fluency, would be left at the other end for a large number of deliveries. This was the case against Afghanistan. Kohli looked like he was playing another game, but Rahul was eating up deliveries. In the end, he lost his patience and pulled out an unnecessary reverse sweep. Vijay Shankar played well enough but lost his wicket to a sweep too. And then walked in MS Dhoni.

Dhoni’s lore as a finisher is famous, and you’ll trust him generally. But he is not perfect. In fact, his approach places him at the core of the middle-order problem. Dhoni generally plays like Rohit. He takes his time to gauge the pitch and the situation, before settling in to play the big shots at the end. It may work sometimes, but it’s a high risk/low yield approach (ironic, given his lack of risk-taking). By playing out dots, it affects the non-striker. Rather than taking singles, one end is getting bogged down. The opposition builds momentum, strangling the batting, and if Dhoni gets out early, there is too much work left.

And that happened against Afghanistan. Between Shankar and Kohli’s wicket, Dhoni played 16 deliveries for 4 runs. That included five dots to Rashid. There were balls that didn’t warrant as much respect. In the same period, Kohli took 9 runs off 9 balls, with only one dot. Dhoni’s stagnation might have had an impact on Kohli, but it had a bigger impact, post-dismissal. There was a ten over period with no boundaries, and by the 42nd over, both Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav were on 23 off 42 and 43 balls played. The pressure eventually got to Dhoni, stumped for the second time in ODIs after a dour 28 off 52 balls. There were no heroics this time.

It was not an easy pitch, granted. You can afford Dhoni’s judgement leeway in that he had to rebuild post-Kohli. And Afghanistan bowled to their lines with superb execution. But by not giving Hardik Pandya enough balls to settle in, India were hamstrung by their own caution. Jadhav finished on 52 off 68, a respectable effort given the situation. India only finished on 224, though. It was a sub-par score that would likely be chased down by a bigger team, even with their superlative bowling. Afghanistan came close to a heroic win, only to be denied by Shami. But, their inexperience cost them, as did Bumrah’s double-strike in the 28th over.

Dhoni is a conundrum. His status as an icon and World Cup-winning captain means that many loathe to criticise him. But his over-caution has cost India before. At Lord’s last year, a strange 37 off 59 even as the asking rate increased essentially handed England the game without a fight. As a finisher, Dhoni can do what he does best. At No 4, he can be allowed to play with caution. But No 5 is a bridge between both styles and Dhoni (or at least this Dhoni) is hampering India. The issue of pushing Dhoni at No 4 though is that the lower middle order is left lacking experience. In the case of a collapse, that could prove costly.

This also strengthens the case for a floating middle order. Shankar, Dhoni, Jadhav and Pandya can all be shifted around depending on the situation. Dhoni can leave it to the end if he wants. But that would work if he can keep rotating the strike and has a Kohli or a Pandya scoring runs at a quick rate at the other end. Soon enough, there will be calls for Rishabh Pant. Bringing Pant in for Shankar may be an option if the all-rounder is not going to bowl. Still, the issue is not with the others, but with Dhoni’s approach. You cannot drop him, so there has to be some adaptation.

Between India’s long-ish tail and a shaky middle-order, India have their work cut out to reduce the dependence on Rohit and Kohli. In the absence of Dhawan, that is crucial. Dhoni’s batting pattern is well-known now, but it remains frustrating. Some intent, or just the rotation of strike, would be welcome. India cannot be England, but they must ensure their bowling does not remain their “get out of jail card”.

For India, such a game will prove to be more productive than imagined. There is no need to worry, even about Dhoni. If anything, it was a valuable wake-up call for the batting that they will have to step up. In a crunch game, the game will have to be won by the middle order. That will offer plenty of food for thought going into the coming games.

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(image credit: AFP)

Author: Rahul Warrier

Rahul is a freelance football writer, having delved into writing in 2015. Based in Singapore, he is a senior writer at These Football Times. His work has also been featured on FourFourTwo, Yahoo Sport, IBWM and MEN among others. He's a football fan, but a cricket enthusiast first.

Twitter @rahulw_

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