“The story has not ended yet. It has suffered only a minor setback in Ranchi. It will go on right through the World Cup before being judged on a two-sided metric of success and failure”

Every story need not have a happy ending. The Indian fans, whose eyes were glued to the action unfolding in Ranchi for the third ODI encounter of the ongoing series between India and Australia, must be feeling the sting of the statement right now. So, what was special about this encounter? Two things, apart from an Australian victory – one that it was hosted in MS Dhoni’s own backyard giving it a festival-kind of look and the other was a yet another hundred by Virat ‘run-machine’ Kohli, his 41st in ODIs.

The second of the two is really a subjective selection as it’s too common an occurrence these days to be considered surprising, let alone special. But the sting of the defeat still remained as both these special factors couldn’t take India across the finishing line.

But today’s story is not that of Ranchi, it’s of the whole of India so it’s not finished yet. It’s a story of the rise of a unit of the Indian Cricket Team which has coped all sorts of ridicule and backlash since the Champions Trophy 2017 up to the Asia Cup 2018. It’s the story of India’s number 4-6 batsmen i.e. the core of the middle-order.

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If we limit our study to the performance of the ten teams featuring in the Cricket World Cup in England, we will find the Indian team right at the top of the pile of the wins accumulated after the 2017 Champions Trophy, followed by England in the pecking order. India have won 36 times out of the 49 times they have taken the field, which results in a win-loss ratio of 3.27- easily the best among all our subjects for this analysis. England’s 23 wins from 34 games in the period translate to a win-loss ratio of 2.87, the second best for the analysis. Not only this, Indian batting group averages more than 45 runs per dismissal – the best among all with England being the only other team to average more than 40 (41.16).

Also read: India’s No. 4 conundrum: A never ending crisis

These statistics for the Indian Team look rosy but their fragrance, until the end of the Asia Cup, turned consistently foul as one’s scrutiny moved down the batting order. The rosy picture was painted largely due to the efforts of the top-three batsmen of the line-up who averaged 63.60 with the bat (the only such group to average beyond 60) and hammered 20 centuries between July 2017 to September 2018. So, where did the middle-order stand? In the period mentioned above, Indian middle-order i.e. numbers 4-6, averaged a meagre 32.87 runs per dismissal (ranked sixth in this regard), had no centuries to show for and were agonizingly slow-scorers with a strike-rate as low as 77.36.

A dependence such as this on the top-order is certainly an invitation to disaster as the top-three batsmen are also human beings who are prone to failures and in such rare scenarios, this overdependence becomes fatal. A team dreaming to replicate the triumphs of 1983 and 2011 can surely ill-afford to carry such a plagued dependence into its World Cup Campaign. Now, the question arises whether there were any improvements in the latter part of our study period i.e. from the dawn of October 2018. Let’s move on to the other part of the story then.

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Since the Asia Cup triumph in late September 2018, India have played 16 matches in which their top-order has contributed at an average of 51.72 with 15 fifty-plus scores while the middle-order stats stood at an average of 48.69 runs per dismissal with 9 fifty-plus scores. It is evident that the top-order dominance in the scoring can still be seen but the rift between the contributions has surely healed. The maligned middle-order’s average has jumped by almost 16 points while the strike-rate of 87.85 is also a welcome improvement of more than 10 points.

Looking at this latter period, India still has the highest batting average (42.96 – the only team to average in the 40s) among all teams but this time their middle-order efforts are more represented. The strike-rate improvement is yet another plus-point in this tale as often slow run-rates can compromise the promising start provided at the up-front. Although India is still the fourth-ranked side in the world if compared in the prowess of the middle order since the Asia Cup yet this rise is a very welcome sign for the team management and fans alike.

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The story has not ended yet. It has suffered only a minor setback in Ranchi. It will go on right through the World Cup before being judged on a two-sided metric of success and failure. Nevertheless, the 4-6 unit has started to peak just at the right time as only two games are remaining now before the long IPL season begins. Hopefully, that strike-rate of just under 88 rises a notch higher in the coming games along with the final solution of the number 4 slot so that the Indian Team can board its UK bound flight with a well-rounded look to give this story a fabled end.

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