From chilly England to hot Dubai, from Test to ODI cricket, from a bilateral series to a multi-team tournament, this has been one speedy transition of scenery. If you are still keeping record, India lost six of their last eight overseas Tests. Alternately, they won six of their last nine overseas ODIs.
There is certain ambiguity about Indian cricket at the moment. Both in Test and ODI formats, they have a settled core of the side. Yet, the difference is in how those two sides are performing at the moment. In the longer format, the bowling attack is doing wonders – the batting core isn’t up to scratch and is heavily dependent on Virat Kohli’s brilliance across conditions.
In the shorter format, the top-order is doing well — there is less dependency on Kohli, the team’s core is pulling strings a little more than in Tests, and while the bowling is settled herein too, it is mighty dependent on two pacers’ fitness and two leg spinners’ fortunes. It’s like we are back in the nineties — with a bang and a twist.
Back then, sub-continental teams used to play a lot of ODI cricket in the desert venue of Sharjah. Visiting Dubai (and Abu Dhabi) should suffice for the Asia Cup, for this is not an exact re-enactment from two decades ago. Indian cricket might be having trouble searching for a non-Kohli reliant identity, but surely looking back at the past is not the way to do it. They need to think about the future, and a change in formats allows for precisely that.
Analysing the crash-landing in England can wait, or take a backseat with Kohli mulling over it in Mumbai, whilst the selectors and team management start thinking about the World Cup again. That tournament is eight months away, but plans need to be firmed up much earlier, when the final squad of 15 players is announced some time in January or February. That leaves Asia Cup, home series against West Indies and probably the away tour of Australia/New Zealand as testing ground — a stretch of 18-19 games until early next year — to finalize preparations for the World Cup.
The key element herein is the middle order, which stands further exposed in Kohli’s absence. Throughout the past year or so, even through overseas tours of South Africa and England, the team management happily maintained that good form from the top-order is a key reason why the later batsmen struggle at times. Thanks to the high amount of runs scored by Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, there is at times very little for the middle order to do. And when the trio fail, even if rarely, there is too much to be done.
At best then, the Indian middle order is struggling to cope with the onerous task of finding this balance between responsibility and playing second fiddle to the top-order. The problem has gained such magnitude that the captain, team management and the selectors have started chopping and changing at will. From Yuvraj Singh, to Manish Pandey, to Shreyas Iyer, to KL Rahul, Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik and Hardik Pandya in between, to Ajinkya Rahane again, and now to Ambati Rayudu, this has become a futile game of merry-go-round with no winner in sight.
Most of the same plans — along with MS Dhoni — find another chance of outing with this Asia Cup. And with Kohli missing, the situation assumes position of promise, to deliver the long-standing solution and end this problem. With the world’s best batsman missing in action, India will pick a batting line-up wherein number three-to-six batsmen are all jousting for position.
Assuming Dhoni and Pandya retain their spots in this line-up, stand-in skipper Rohit Sharma will have to somehow fit in Rahul, Rayudu, Karthik, Pandey and Jadhav in three middle order positions. Anyone who has been sleeping this whole time and wakes up today would assume this is a situation of strength. The reality is very different, for there is a pressing need for any one of these batsmen to stake a claim of doing this job long term.
Could it be Rayudu, whose omission from the England tour on account of fitness caused such a furore? His IPL performances had given insurmountable hope to find a solution to this muddle, but things have changed since then. Take the case of Rahul and Karthik – their combined dwindling stock in England ODIs proved that success in the IPL means little when it comes to the contrast in sub-continental conditions to those wherein the World Cup will be played.
Yet, it is in consistency that India seek their answers. At present, the team management will pick a unicorn at number four if it were able to string together five innings worth consistent performances, something those above-listed names have failed to do in the past 18 months or so. Perhaps the biggest guilty party herein is Pandey, whose successive failures whenever afforded opportunity, have met with personal admission of loss in confidence.
In South Africa, after sitting on the bench throughout the ODI series, Pandey admitted that he could have always done more. Little did he know, his words weighed-in not just for himself but for every batsman who has been tried at number four in the recent past and yet failed to cement his spot in this Indian line-up.
Kohli’s absence then lifts a hallowed safety net over this batting order. Without him, these batsmen – individually or collectively – simply have to put their hands up, or they will perish in what is seen as a sub-continental mini World Cup, which the Men in Blue should win. Anything less is a disaster this team management will be keen to avoid, especially after an overall disappointing batting display in England.