“Come next year, India will be the favourites to win the World Cup. But in order to live up to the expectations, the team management and the selectors have exactly a year to sort out this middle-order mess”
This was Virat Kohli’s favourite word in South Africa. In almost every presser during India’s tour of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ earlier this year, he spoke about playing with intent. Well, on Saturday, this much talked about ‘intent’ was hardly evident, when MS Dhoni was playing that bizarre knock. And while watching that meek surrender by his teammates, sitting in the Lord’s balcony Kohli couldn’t hide his disgust. Though, later in the post-match presentation, he defended Dhoni’s approach. Well, he just had to, for obvious reasons.
Nevertheless, exactly 365 days before the World Cup final, this game at the ‘Home of Cricket’ exposed India’s woes in the middle-order.
In modern-day cricket, a target of 323 in an ODI is hardly considered as a stiff. However, India ended up losing the game by 86 runs. It happened because this team heavily relies on its top-three — Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli — especially during a run-chase. Stats show in the past three years, in successful chases, the trio has scored 59% of the runs for the side.
On Saturday, the trio got starts but failed to capitalise on it. And after them, the hollowness in the middle-order was out in the open. As a result, India were not even in the game in the last 15 overs, that too against a relatively one-dimensional bowling attack. In fact, as soon as Kohli got out in the 27th over, Sourav Ganguly in the commentary had no hesitation to give his verdict – the match is gone!
Meanwhile, coming to this limited-overs series in England, the Indian skipper anticipated this vulnerability in the batting lineup. In his pre-departure press conference, Kohli did talk about trying out new things to plug this hole.
“The middle order in the ODIs has been something that we have been looking for, so we have a few things that we want to try out and address there as well,” he said. “This next phase is going to be really important to figure all those things out and have the best balance that we need going into that big tournament, but that’s quite far away but we have a vision for it.”
Well, to be fair to Kohli, he did try to tinkle the lineup by asking KL Rahul to come at No. 4 and Suresh Raina at No. 5. Prior to the Lord’s ODI, Rahul had shown promise, starting from the T20Is in Ireland. However, going after bowlers at the top of the order in a T20 game and giving team stability in middle-order in an ODI is a different task altogether. I am sure after Saturdays’ fixture, in which he fell for a duck, the youngster now understands that and he can only improve from there.
However, in this Indian team, there are two individuals, who are well past their primes and beyond that phase of making an improvement — Raina and Dhoni. And the Indian think-tank still trusts them to play the role of finishers, despite their fading reputations batsmen.
Raina was not actually meant to be part of the ODI squad. Prior to this tour, he made comeback in India colours in South Africa, where he was only considered for the T20I series. Despite any significant performance at the domestic level, the Southpaw earned an ODI call-up, courtesy of Ambati Rayudu failing the mandatory yo-yo fitness test. Raina’s last ODI appearance before this series was way back in 2015.
In the first ODI at Trent Bridge, he was not needed. But in the second game, it was a golden opportunity for Raina to seal his spot in the team. At 60 for 3, India needed his experience to come good. But in spite of being dropped twice, he could only manage a 63-ball 46. When the asking rate was touching 8.5 and 9, Raina’s strike-rate of 73.01 was clearly inconsequential. In fact, it was putting Kohli under pressure.
And after Raina, it was Dhoni’s turn to disappoint.
India needed 169 in 19 overs with Dhoni and Hardik Pandya at the crease. But, one of the most respected finishers in cricket faltered badly. As the asking rate was getting stiffer, Dhoni’s strike-rate went in the wrong direction. It seemed as if he was playing for Stumps — defending half-volleys and taking singles of full-tosses. After being booed by the Lord’s crowd and strong message from the dressing room, he eventually showed attacking instincts, in the 47th over, but only to get caught in the deep for a distasteful 59-ball 37. It was indeed a wrong day to get to the 10,000 ODI runs milestone for India’s keeper-batsman.
With such an approach, in next year’s World Cup India need to reconsider Dhoni’s role with the bat in hand, if they persist with him. Remember, Dinesh Karthik, who is arguably having the form of his life, is waiting at the wings.
However, even if Dhoni plays, India certainly need to find an alternative for Raina. If selectors still consider him as a World Cup probable, they are living in a fool’s paradise. In all probabilities, a fit Kedar Jadhav could fill up the No. 7 spot while bowling his off breaks. Otherwise, there are the likes of Manish Pandey and Shreyas Iyer who can take this position. But ignoring these youngsters and depending Raina will certainly be a backward step.
Come next year, India will be the favourites to win the World Cup. But in order to live up to the expectations, the team management and the selectors have exactly a year to sort out this middle-order mess.