It is not world cricket’s best-kept secret that India’s batting in one-day internationals is rather dependent on the top three, openers Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan as well as skipper Virat Kohli. With only a handful of games left before India embarks for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, the pressure on the three batsmen is only increasing.
With Kohli being rested for the last two ODI games in New Zealand, India’s batting was exposed like very rarely in the past two years. The early fall of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan saw the rest of the line-up face rough weather in Hamilton and being bowled out for 92, its worst score in 210 games since India made 88 against New Zealand in Dambulla, Sri Lanka in 2010.
It is no secret either that India’s attempts to unearth batting talent that would hold the middle-order together and manage the innings in the event of a top order failure has not had much success. India’s middle-order responsibilities now lie with 37-year-old Mahendra Singh Dhoni and 33-year-old batsmen Ambati Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav and Dinesh Karthik.
Significantly, with a solid bowling attack falling in place, India have won 38 matches, including four in England since 1 February, 2017. India have lost 12 games, including four in England in this period. Of these, eight defeats have come in games featuring Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli in the XI.
It may make sense to look, even if only cursorily, at the six defeats in the last 16 months since New Zealand’s tour of India. One of the most striking aspects of these losses is that one of the top three has actually scored a century in four of these matches. It indicates that India need the trio to be ticking together for it to reduce the chances of losing a game.
The first came against New Zealand in Mumbai where Kohli made 121 and yet India was unable to raise 300. Ross Taylor and Tom Latham sealed a six-wicket win for the visiting side. In February 2018, Dhawan’s scored 109 in Johannesburg but after his 158-run stand with Kohli, India added just 111 runs in 18.5 overs. The team lost by five wickets by the Duckworth-Lewis method.
In the two defeats against England at Lord’s and Leeds in July last, there was just one half-century by a top three Indian batsman. Kohli’s 71 in the latter game was not enough to spur India to even 260. The result was a massive eight-wicket loss with Joe Root and Eoin Morgan denying the Indian bowlers much success.
Chasing 284 for a win against the West Indies in Pune on 27 October last year, India lost by 43 runs despite the king of the chase, Kohli, scoring 107. India’s last defeat with all three top guns playing came in Sydney last month. Rohit Sharma, whose highest score in the five losses earlier was 20, made 133 but India fell quite short of the 289-run target.
Come to think of it, there really is no need for statistics to show how reliant India’s batting is on the top three coming good together. When Indian team takes the flight to England for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, these three batsmen will carry the hopes of the nation that they would not let the middle-order be exposed to severe challenges.
Of course, the ICC Cricket World Cup will be a chance for the other batsmen to be counted. But with there being some doubt about the middle-order not being as strong as its predecessors, the onus will be on the top three to ensure that they bat deep into India’s innings and not leave it to the later order batsmen to first repair the damage and then find a winning route.
It is not as if Ambati Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and Dinesh Karthik are not capable of raising the bar but there has not been much evidence — and most certainly not on a consistent basis — that they can turn a game on its head after India have lost two of the top three batsmen early on.
The Indian cricket team will be hoping that the openers and Kohli reach England in a fresh state of mind so that each of them can carry the burden of India’s batting individually and in the two partnerships at the start of the innings. It is imperative that they remain hungry to drive India’s batting campaign in the World Cup.
The good thing is that Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, and Virat Kohli will be more aware of this challenge than anyone else. They have already given evidence of their willingness to stay at the crease a bit longer than usual. Is that not how India have picked up more victories than suffered defeats in the past few months?
The best cricketers — and in fact the best athletes — have learned to thrive under pressure. And in the run-up to the World Cup in England and Wales, the top three Indian batsmen will have had the time to realise how crucial their individual and collective successes would be to the team that dreams, fueled by an exciting bowling attack, of going the distance.
How well the top-three respond to this awareness and how it sees it as an opportunity rather than a challenge to paper over the cracks even in the World Cup will determine the length of the Indian team’s stay in the tournament. There can be no argument that each of the three batsmen has to keep himself hungry, fresh and ready to shoulder what seems like an extra load on his shoulders.
Dhoni told Rudi V Webster, interviewing him for Think Like A Champion, that pressure is nothing but added responsibility. “It is not pressure when God gives you the opportunity to be a hero for your team and your country,” he said. Indeed, if India’s top batsmen embrace pressure, each will put his best foot forward and steer the team’s campaign as well as in the past couple of years.