“However, the sternest test remains for Dhoni. If Karthik does have a successful outing and if the former captain fails, the pressure will only mount on him”
Acting as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup in England next year, the ongoing Asia Cup presents an opportunity for teams to sort out the chinks in their armour before the greatest spectacle nears the final countdown. The Indian Cricket Team are riding high on a wave of confidence that has swept them with the arrival of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, who have been successful in spinning a web around their rivals ever since their entry into the national team, and the squad is further buoyed by the staggering form of their top three.
Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli have been the go-to men for India in the last few seasons, with their consistency and their continued aggression auguring well for the side who will be on the look-out for their third World Cup title next year. In the ODI format, the three have contributed 7717 runs in 142 innings at an average of 63.84 between them since the World Cup in 2015 while batting in the top three, and it would not be a hyperbole to state that India has relied heavily on the exploits of their top three to pile on the pressure upon the opposition.
With an unerring consistency – which sees either opener take on the responsibility if his partner is out early – combined with Kohli’s colossal average of 84.60 in the last 40 months, the top order has almost always ensured that the good days have overridden the bad ones but the issue seems to arise after these players are back in the pavilion.
It is then crucial for the middle order to build on to this momentum and further strengthen this foundation that has already been set by the top three. Not only do they have to anchor the innings, but they must also ensure that the same is done with a good strike-rate as well. By ensuring that the middle overs are a smooth passage, the batsmen at numbers four, five and six have to stay on till the death overs where they can end the innings with a flourish. However, since the tournament in Australia and New Zealand, this spot has remained an Achilles Heel for India.
An inconsistent middle order
In the last three years, 18 players have turned out for India in the middle order in 62 matches. Of them, only 7 have played more than 10 games for India, with MS Dhoni turning out in 54 matches at an average of 45.90. However, his slow strike-rate, which hovers around the 80-mark, display his waning skills and the latest episode, where he was booed at Lord’s for his slower-than-slow approach when India needed some quick runs in the ODI series against England show that he is not the reliable Dhoni that we once knew him to be.
Kedar Jadhav has played 30 games, the second-most number of matches after Dhoni, but he has been in and out of the side with a number of injuries hampering his progress in the national team. Manish Pandey, with 18 games has been inconsistent as well – he tends to give off high hopes with an impressive domestic record but his habit of slipping on the international stage has seemed to work against his favour. Of the other batsmen that have played in the middle order for India since the 2015 World Cup, only Ajinkya Rahane, Yuvraj Singh and Dinesh Karthik average more than 40.
But while Rahane, with an average of 42.40 and a strike rate of 92.17, could be a permanent solution, he often proves to be a liability in the subcontinental conditions due to his inability to rotate the strike. Though he played in the ODIs in South Africa earlier in the year, he is not seen as a regular fixture in the ODI squad. Yuvraj has long fallen off the radar due to a drop in fitness levels and Karthik has the opportunity to seal his spot with an impressive Asia Cup.
It is not only Karthik though who will be looking to make amends in the competition for the subcontinental rivals. With Kohli not in the side, the opportunity is ripe for players like KL Rahul, Ambati Rayudu and Manish Pandey to grab on to the chances, while Dhoni will be eager to prove that his days in international cricket are far from over.
Time for youngsters to step up
Rahul showed his immense talent with a spectacular Indian Premier League, where he never flinched in sending the deliveries towards the boundary ropes. He further impressed with a remarkable 100 in the first T20I against England but scores of 0 and 9* in the two ODIs saw him missing out from the third game against the same team. With the regular skipper rested for the Asia Cup, Rahul, in all probability will bat at number three and if he can replicate the kind of consistency that Kohli is reputed for, the World Cup dream will not be a distant one.
However, he will have to outperform his immediate competition – Rayudu, Jadhav and Pandey. Though Rayudu averages almost 50.23 in 34 ODIs, the last represented India way back in 2016 and has only risen up in the reckoning after the domestic Twnety20 League, where he managed 602 runs in 16 matches with a strike-rate of 150.
He was selected in the team that would tour England but a failure to pass the Yo-Yo test resulted in Suresh Raina being picked in place of him. Though a great performance in the 20 over format need not necessarily mean a successful outing in 50 overs, Rayudu can change all perceptions by scoring truckloads of runs in the tournament.
Pandey has had a successful Quadrangular series, where he scored two fifties and one hundred without being unbeaten in four games but his failure to translate his form into the international arena could prove a hurdle once again. Karthik too would be vying for a spot among the three slots available in the middle order this Asia Cup, and he would be aware that he can go only so far with his Nidahas Trophy Final exploits.
However, the sternest test remains for Dhoni. If Karthik does have a successful outing and if the former captain fails, the pressure will only mount on him. His tendency of consuming almost 20-30 deliveries before he settles in rattles the juggernaut and though he is a superstar, repeated failures along with the fine form of Karthik could even lead to serious repercussions. Once Kohli returns though, only two spots will be up for grabs in the middle-order – considering Dhoni will hang on to his place – and in this game of musical chairs, it is the most impactful cricketer who will garner the ultimate prize.