Let's get straight to the point. India start off as one of the favourites at the 2019 World Cup.
It's a deviation from four years ago when the defending champions trudged Down Under as underdogs. A battered and fatigued side had entered the World Cup on the back of a long Australia tour where they didn't win a single game, going down in the Test series 2-0 and not winning an ODI in the tri-series involving hosts Australia and England. The batting was inconsistent, the bowling knackered. Ishant Sharma was ruled out even before the tournament started. Bhuvneshwar Kumar was recovering from injury. The rest of the pace attack of Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Mohit Sharma, and Stuart Binny didn't imbue ultra-positivity.
But there is something about the ICC tournaments that brings the best out of India. Amidst all those concerns, India went on a preposterous run in that World Cup and won seven games in a row before losing to the eventual winners Australia in the semi-final.
In the last eight years, India have won two ICC tournaments — the 2011 World Cup at home and the 2013 Champions Trophy in England. They finished runners-up in the 2014 World T20 and 2017 Champions Trophy. They made it to the semi-finals of the 2015 World Cup and 2016 World T20. That is some consistency.
India did suffer a jolt in their last ODI series before the World Cup, getting stunned by Australia at home. But that was a minor blip compared to four years ago where they went an entire tour winless.
The Virat Kohli-led side has achieved special feats in the last 2-3 years. Since the Champions Trophy, they have won 10 out of 12 bilateral series, an Asia Cup and first ever Test series win in Australia. It is this consistency that emanates optimism as they head into the World Cup.
That they are 'one of the' and not 'the' favourites comes with nagging concerns. It's not all rosy for them as they head into the tournament. There are weaknesses.
The first of them is ambiguity.
Who will be India's No 4? Who will be India's lead spinner? Two spinners or three pacers? KL Rahul or Vijay Shankar? Five batsmen, five bowlers or six batsmen and four bowlers?
These are some of the questions that have been playing on loop over and over again maybe ever since India's No 4s decided that they don't want to be the No 4s.
Let's be honest, the middle order is indeed a worry, though it might not be as exaggerated as it is made to look. The Indian middle order has averaged 34.20 since the Champions Trophy, the fifth best in this period. They are 9 runs per wicket less than England who top the table with 43.07. But worryingly, there has been just one century scored in that middle order. England have scored 7, New Zealand 5, Bangladesh 5, South Africa 3; each of these teams have a higher average than India. Among top-5 ranked teams in the world currently, Indian middle-order batsmen's (4-7) runs/innings ratio of 25.15 is the lowest in ODIs since the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy.
ODI cricket has undergone a drastic transformation in the last few years. It has slowly become a middle overs game. The team that masters the middle overs holds the aces.
In such a scenario, India will need to catch up to the trends. There is over-reliance on the top order and going by the trends, the middle order's role has become more crucial now. And perhaps at this point the only one thing ‘the nation wants to know’ is who will be No 4. It might be the most asked question since Hema Malini's 'Aap Kent purifier laa rahe ho na?' in a water purifier advert.
India have tried 11 players at No 4 since the Champions Trophy and they are still searching for someone to fire in that position consistently. In that two-year period, India's No 4 has averaged 33.50, only Australia and West Indies among the nations in the World Cup have been worse. There is just a single century scored.
No player has scored a ton at No 5 and India stand sixth in the list of averages in that position with 36.11.
In the 2011 World Cup, one of the key reasons for success was the middle order carried forward the momentum from the top order. The top three averaged 48.03 (2nd best) and batsmen 4-7 averaged 45.04, (the best in the tournament), a stat that signifies the importance of the middle order.
Going by the trends in the recently concluded England vs Pakistan series, where seven 340-plus totals were scored including two being chased down, it's going to be a high-scoring World Cup and maintaining the intensity in the middle overs will also hold importance in the quest for big totals.
Among the current top-6 ODI teams in the world, the Indian middle-order batsmen's (4-7) batting SR of 85.92 is the lowest in ODIs in the last two years.
They will need to alter their approach as well.
Yes, Rahul and Dhoni appeased some nerves with centuries at No 4 and 5 in the warm-up game against Bangladesh. But there is only so much you can take away from a practice game where the opposition bowled nine bowlers and none of them completed their full quota. In their first match against New Zealand, India were bundled out for 179. Rahul might be the top contender now for that 'coveted' role but what if he doesn't click in the first 2-3 matches? This is where flexibility might be the key amidst the ambiguity. India should play to the situation rather than go in with a set or rigid plan.
The only time the ball is expected to move around for most of the tournament is in the first hour of the match. If India go in with KL Rahul and not Vijay Shankar, which looks pretty much likely, and if a wicket falls early, Rahul can come in at No 3 and Kohli can drop to No 4 to provide the middle order stability. Rahul was originally touted as the back-up opener and it's his experience of batting as an opener that can come in handy. If the openers carry on till 20-25 overs then Kohli can come in at No 3 and control things from there on, while Rahul can bat at No 4.
Power hitting will be another big factor in this World Cup. A team like England bats deep and has ample power hitters in their line-up and that is one of the reasons why they have been piling up humongous totals. In the case a wicket falls near the 33-35-over mark, India can opt to send Hardik Pandya to up the ante before the third Powerplay kicks in from 41st over where five fielders can be placed outside the circle compared to four.
If Vijay Shankar plays, then Kohli can come in at 3 and Shankar plays at 4 or maybe Dhoni as well.
Kedar Jadhav, if fit, will be expected to take up the power-hitting role along with Pandya. Perhaps another concern is the weak tail that India possesses and that's why the top 7 have extra responsibility on their shoulders.
In the bowling department as well, flexibility can help. India don't know who their lead spinner is and also whether they will go in with 3 pacers and a spinner or two pacers and two spinners. Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal and Ravindra Jadeja, all were impressive in the warm-up matches. In this case, opposition specific planning can help. A team like South Africa has struggled against the wrist spinners and over the last two years, and Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal have picked up the most (17) and joint second-most (16) number of wickets respectively against the Proteas. So maybe go in with the two wrist spinners and two pacers rather than three.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar will most likely be the third pacer for India. He has a good record against Australia in the last couple of years. He’s had the best average among the Indian pacers and taken second-most wickets (17). So maybe he can come in as the second pacer with Jasprit Bumrah who is expected to play all the matches.
Pacers have had success against Pakistan. No spinner has taken more than 10 wickets against them in the last two years. The spinners have averaged 49 against Pakistan, 14 runs per wicket more than pacers who average 35.63. Seven of the top 10 wicket takers against Pakistan have been pacers. So, India can ponder playing three pacers and one spinner against the arch-rivals.
Kuldeep has had a decent amount of success against West Indies. He has taken 17 wickets (second-most overall) from 9 matches at 19.82 and econ of 4.65 with a strike rate of 25.5. So maybe hand him the lead spinner's role against the men from the Caribbean.
This also helps in the rotation aspect considering the injury history of Shami and Bhuvneshwar, especially given that there might be a fear of burn out in a one-and-half month-long tournament. The bench strength and balanced bowling attack evoke awe and envy in generous measures.
The horses for courses strategy also brings in the unpredictability factor. It might be veering away from the norm but can take the teams by surprise, especially amidst the internal ambiguity.
Bumrah, who in Sachin Tendulkar's words is the best bowler in the world, will be India's most lethal weapon while Pandya, with his power-hitting and striking, the X-Factor. But don't be surprised if MS Dhoni ends up playing the most pivotal role if India do go on to lift the trophy. His resurgence with the bat, lightning quick reflexes behind the stumps and tactical inputs to Kohli might just prove to be the difference.
Jadhav travelling to the UK is a huge shot in the arm given that he was the fifth/sixth bowling option India were relying the most on.
In what is touted to be the 'most challenging World Cup' where every team plays every team in the group stage in a redux of the 1992 World Cup, India will have to maintain the intensity throughout while dealing with on-field pressure and off-field expectations, while trying to physically and mentally recuperate from the six-week long IPL. 'Pressure' is the theme Kohli continuously stressed throughout in the entire pre-departure press conference.
Another challenge will be adapting to the format as quickly as possible. Teams like England, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the West Indies have played the 50-over format in the last leg of their preparations while India, warm-ups aside, last played the format almost three months ago.
Kohli, the batsman, will undoubtedly click and pile on centuries. But It will be a test of Kohli, the leader, and his tactical acumen. He has a balanced and experienced side at his disposal with seven players having played a part in the previous edition. He has done it before, 11 years ago, with the U-19 side. And if that middle order clicks, there is every chance the Lord's balcony might give the Indian fans another iconic moment to savour and even the possibility of hearing the famous words, "He has carried the burden of the nation for 15 years. It is time we carried him on our shoulders," but with this time Dhoni, not Sachin, lifted in the air.
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