On Sunday, 30 June, India takes on hosts, England at Edgbaston, in Birmingham, to try and cement its place in the semifinal lineup of the ICC World Cup of 2019. On the other hand, the home team, despite its early promise, will need to beat both India and New Zealand (on 3 July) to stay in the competition.
On form, India should be able to put it across the Eoin Morgan led side. The track at Edgbaston though has been a bit dicey and two-paced. It was only the classy batting of Babar Azam and Haris Sohail that allowed Pakistan to get past New Zealand’s 237 for 7 in 50 overs here, last Wednesday. The England top order will therefore be wary of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami. The Indian batting lineup shall also have to be mindful of the fact that Jofra Archer, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood and Ben Stokes, stung by their recent defeats, will go for their jugular.
As the round-robin league moves into its final week, only Australia seems to be assured of a semifinal berth. India, New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Pakistan shall have to fight it out for the three remaining places. Even Sri Lanka, with six points from six games, has an outside chance of making it to the penultimate round if it wins all its remaining matches. My guess is, and it’s a wild one: On 9 July, Australia will play Pakistan at Old Trafford and on 11 July, India will play New Zealand at Edgbaston in the semifinals.
That said, India has a few problem areas to sort out before it plays England, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the league. One of them is its batting order, and in particular, it's number four batting position. Since Shikhar Dhawan’s departure, from a broken thumb, KL Rahul, who used to bat at two-down has been asked to open the innings. Remember, he was originally picked as a reserve opener in the squad?
Rahul’s performance as an opener has been rather sketchy. His fans will surely point to the fact that he has scored 135 runs in three innings as an opener but his strike rate has been a poor 70 percent. Dhawan’s authoritative presence at the crease would take a lot of pressure off Rohit Sharma but Rahul’s tentativeness has surely affected the latter’s batting performance in the last two matches. What’s more, Rahul has been prone to playing some rash shots every now and then in order to force the pace.
Rishabh Pant was flown in as a backup for Dhawan. Besides being the third wicketkeeper in the squad behind MS Dhoni and Dinesh Karthik, he is a hard-hitting batsman. The question is, is Pant the right man to play at number four for India? India’s batting is top heavy, with a lot of dependence on the openers and skipper Virat Kohli, at number three, to score runs. What happens when the three of them – god forbid - are back in the hut for say, 50 runs? Is Pant capable of carrying the team on his shoulders with support from Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya?
It therefore made sense for India’s team management to opt for Vijay Shankar, an all-rounder, to bat in that vital position despite Pant’s call up. He had batted at number four in previous limited overs matches for India and performed creditably well. However, in the few matches that he has played in the World Cup, he has been found wanting. Moreover, despite bowling well against Pakistan, in which he ‘surprised’ Kohli by picking two wickets, he hasn’t been allowed to bowl against Afghanistan and the West Indies. Therefore, experts believe, it is time Shankar was dropped.
In the 2011 World Cup, which India won under Dhoni’s captaincy, there were Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina playing in the middle order, with Kohli at either three or four. Both of them were capable of building an innings and going after the bowling when required. In the 2015 edition of the World Cup, when India played the semifinals against Australia and lost, again under Dhoni, there were Ajinkya Rahane and Suresh Raina to prop up the middle order. As far as the World Cup of 2019 is concerned, Kohli has had little choice. He can now either play Pant or Karthik at number four or promote Jadhav in the batting order.
Another issue that the Team India management will need to address urgently is whether to persist with Shami or to bring back Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who had dropped out with a hamstring injury. Bowling coach Bharat Arun had called it a good headache to have at a media meet before the West Indies match. Bhuvneshwar is a better choice on flat wickets, while Shami can trouble batsmen on wickets like the one the Indians encountered against the West Indies. I reckon, on Sunday against England, Bumrah will share the new ball with Shami.
A few cricket followers – probably the T20 kind – have found unacceptable the way Dhoni has gone about building his innings, this World Cup. Even Sachin Tendulkar, in his television interview, is said to have criticised him for showing ‘no intent’ during his snail-like innings against Afghanistan. There is very little doubt that the former skipper has slowed down a bit but the fact remains that he is still the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the country. If there was somebody better than him, Kohli, Ravi Shastri and the selectors would certainly have picked him ahead of Dhoni.
As far as batting is concerned, Dhoni has kept one end going when the top order has failed to deliver. He knows that Team India has a long tail and that a collapse in the middle order can mean defeat. Besides, Dhoni is an asset as a ‘keeper – with quick silver reflexes - and a mentor to the young bowlers in the team. He is also the squad’s elder statesman, and a World Cup winning skipper, on whom the team management can rely for advice.
It was, I believe, two years ago that Dhoni was put on notice by the chairman of selectors, MSK Prasad and told that his performances were being watched. It was then that the former skipper had declared that he would be playing the World Cup of 2019. “Whether it is batting, wicket-keeping or captaincy,” says one prominent TV commentator, “Dhoni makes his own rules.” It is therefore expected that the legendary ‘keeper-batsman will walk away from international cricket, post 14 July, 2019, perhaps having helped Team India to one more World Cup win; before someone decides to drop him.
Legends don’t die; they just fade away, don’t they?
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, coach and administrator, he believes in calling a spade, a spade.
Updated Date: Jun 29, 2019 10:23:44 IST