Questions Over India’s Middle-Order Remain Pre-World Cup

March 22, 2019

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If the Australia ODIs in India were meant to be a final litmus test before the Cricket World Cup in June, it may have proved counterproductive.

The Indian team management used the two T20Is and five ODIs as a means to iron out some selection quandaries, with the more pressing issue being the identity of the No 4 batsman. And after losing the ODI series 3-2 despite winning the first two games, there is an understandable disquiet regarding India’s World Cup hopes. Is India too dependent on Virat Kohli? Will they not kick on and post high scores without a strong start from the openers? Is the middle order spineless without MS Dhoni? That’s jumping the gun slightly. Every team has issues, and India are not perfect. But there is fair ground for such concerns.

The modern fan is impatient and demands quick results. There is no time to wait after a couple of failures, even if you did reasonably well in the previous series: you are only as good as your last game. And when the beacon of consistency, Virat Kohli, bats at No 3, it’s tough to emulate the same level of reliability. Yet you would assume that at least one of the options would stand up and make their position their own. The positions call for steady batting before opening up towards the end, but none of the contenders have been able to put together a string of good scores.

Take, for example, Ambati Rayudu. He appeared to have the trust of Captain Kohli and he seemed to have the No 4 slot largely covered. But then the first three ODIs set him back: he toiled his way to 13, 18 and 2, playing 40 dot balls out of 59 deliveries. Despite scoring 190 runs in five innings in New Zealand, including a match-winning 90 in a difficult situation, his lack of strike rotation has become a concern. Given Dhoni’s penchant for batting slowly, it may slow down the momentum too much to have Rayudu not reflecting Kohli’s urgency at the other end. Where India struggle at is keeping the score ticking in the middle overs; so often you’d feel they have the ability to push for runs more, and yet they settle for just enough. With Rayudu, it may leave too many eggs in the Kohli and Dhoni-shaped basket.

Vijay Shankar, on the other hand, is a more favourable option. He’s not flashy, but he doesn’t have to be. He played all five ODIs, indicative of how his standing has increased over the past few months. He’s able to rotate strike, keep one end stable and play some nice strokes, even if he is unable to really clear the boundary regularly. What Kohli requires is a reliable partner to keep picking the singles, and Shankar may be the man. Their 81-run partnership was an example of that; Shankar played a busy 46 off 41 runs before losing his wicket through misfortune. He’s also able to pitch in with the odd over here and there (even winning the game in Nagpur). If that 46 was converted to a bigger score, the spot may be settled already, but for now, you’d bet on Shankar starting in the World Cup, initially.

There are other options. Rishabh Pant has two Test hundreds but is being forced to live up to unfair comparisons with Dhoni. He lacks the temperament for ODI yet, forcing big shots often, but he is a talent worth honing. He also earned a Category A central contract – the second highest – recently, showing he’s well and truly in the plans. He will in all likeliness travel as Dhoni’s understudy, but he should not be starting – yet. Unfortunately, that would mean the end of Dinesh Karthik, who might be a better option but has fallen prey to the emergence of Pant and the abundance of keepers.

Then there is KL Rahul, who’s had a whirlwind few months, returned to make 50 and 47 in the T20Is, but was then shoehorned into an unfavourable situation in his only ODI chance. What works against Rahul is his preference to open against the new ball and work himself in, allowing himself to better handle the old ball. Pushing him down the order makes him more of a square peg than others. He should travel as the back-up opener, but nothing more.

Crucially, the IPL may also act as a last-minute launching pad for players on the precipice of the squad. While it is unlikely to impact Shankar and Rayudu, accumulators not entirely suited for the shorter format, it could make the difference if Pant plays some big innings, or Rahul has a season like 2018. Kohli has stated that the IPL will not make a difference, a blow to Ajinkya Rahane, who may be better suited for seaming conditions in theory but for whom is surely too late.

Ideally (given the resources), you’d have Sharma and Dhawan opening, Kohli at No.3, Shankar at No.4, Kedar Jadhav at No.5 (with his handy off-spin an added bonus), Dhoni at No.6, Hardik Pandya at No.7 and possibly Bhuvneshwar at No.8. That leaves two spinners, Kuldeep Yadav and Chahal, and Bumrah rounding up the XI. That would ensure the presence of eight capable batsmen, four main bowlers and three all-rounders. Rounding up the 15 would be Rahul (back-up opener/batsman), Pant (back-up keeper/batsman), Ravindra Jadeja (back-up spinner) and Mohammed Shami (back-up pacer likely to play more than the other three).

It’s a strong 15. Is it good enough to win the Cricket World Cup? Time will tell. It’s all about the support the middle-order can provide. If they are able to come up with crucial knocks a la Yuvraj Singh in 2011, the team will be more settled. The XI above provides the most balance, even if it’s not perfect. There are still doubts – whether the middle-order can adjust to English conditions being one – but if India can nail the No.4 spot, they should be fine.

For now, they just need to get through the IPL with no injuries.

In other news

  • The Christchurch shooting was heartbreaking. The Bangladesh cricket team were minutes away from entering the mosque. At first, people may have thought this was targeted at them, but as it turns out, they were only a small part of a wider story. It is incredible, and also sobering, how a few minutes can unknowingly save your life. We can only hope that the cricketers get the required support to get over the incident.
  • Afghanistan have come so far in less than twenty years. The Afghanistan Cricket Board was set up in 1995, and they got their ICC Affiliate Stats in 2001. They’ve made it to four T20 World Cups and the 2015 ODI World Cup since then. And now they’ve won their first Test earlier in the week in their second try, beating Ireland comfortably. Their rise has been spectacular. Hopefully, they’ll be able to fly the flag high in England later in the year, taking down some big teams with them.
  • Will Jacks hit a century off 25 balls for Surrey against Lancashire in a pre-season T10 match. It included 11 sixes, including six in an over. That’s mind-boggling hitting, to the point where it’s as close to the popular game Stick Cricket as you can ever get.
  • The Indian Premier League rolls into town, once again. Expect entertainment, ecstasy, disappointment and frustration in equal measures. It’s time to embrace the yearly chaos.

Find all your 2019 Cricket World Cup betting odds here

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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