India vs South Africa: Coach Rahul Dravid’s biggest headache is solving India’s middle-order jigsaw

Five weeks ago, if someone had told you that India would end up losing five out of six games on their tour of South Africa, you would have laughed it off. Despite the captaincy shenanigans, both pre-tour and post the Test series, this seemed a remote possibility. Your serious answer would be that India, under duress, is still a better outfit than South Africa across all formats – at least on paper. Over the past month or so, the Proteas have torn that paper to shreds.

Some tough questions need to be asked at the end of this tour, which seems like a hallucination. A 2-1 loss in the Test series, followed by a 3-0 spanking in the ODIs, and team India returns home empty-handed from a trip that they would have otherwise thought to dominate. One of the many questions ought to be, just how did they even manage to win the first Test in Centurion? Was it all because South African pacers, for a lack of cricket in the build-up, did not bowl well on day one and allowed Indian openers a century-stand?

Rishabh Pant’s first-ball dismissal in third ODI re-opened the debate if he should be batting at number four at all. AP

Rishabh Pant’s first-ball dismissal in the third ODI re-opened the debate if he should be batting at number four at all. AP

Probably the biggest question in that list would be regarding India’s middle-order conundrum. How do you solve this issue that has been dragging on for five years now? It is almost a chore to remember when the Men in Blue had a settled middle-order, wherein each batsman knew his role as per situation or demands of the team in general. Perhaps when MS Dhoni was still captain? In addition to any lack of silverware, it is a stark reflection on Virat Kohli’s ODI captaincy that India couldn’t sort out this mess.

Could it be possible that his captaincy exit, coupled with Rohit Sharma’s current absence, has made things worse at least in the short term? Three successive losses against South Africa, all of them mounted on a middle-order problem, point to the same. In the first ODI, India failed to chase a near-300 total despite being placed at 152-3 (28.2 overs) at one stage. In the second ODI, the story played out in reverse as India batted first, got another platform at 179-3 (31.1 overs) and then failed to capitalize on it. In the third ODI, it was a straight copy from the first game, as they failed to chase another sub-300 score despite the innings at 118-3 (22.6 overs).

Which was the most stunning defeat? Arguably it has to be the last ODI. For one, India didn’t really pick an optimal side in the first two ODIs in the garb of experimentation. They picked an extra bowling option in Venkatesh Iyer, and having misjudged the slower conditions in Paarl, then gave him only five overs in two matches. In doing so, they weakened the batting line-up for he was clearly not ready for an international outing, that too marshalling a finish from the middle order.

At Cape Town then, the team management swallowed the bitter pill and went in with only five bowling options. Shreyas Iyer turned his arm over – 0-21 in three overs – and it wasn’t half bad. If he is going to play ODIs, then irrespective of five or six bowling options, he needs to bowl 2-3 overs in each outing. For, that is how you will develop a part-time bowling option to fall back on if needed. In this, India can follow South Africa’s lead – Aiden Markram doesn’t have a great bowling record, starting from domestic cricket. But he is bowling more and more in international cricket, and has become a viable option for them across formats. At this point in time, based on current form alone, he is even a better bowler than batter for the Proteas.

Of course, if you are borrowing something from South Africa’s playbook, why not take a look at their middle order? Through the series, their top order and middle-order batsmen have been in-sync, and played to the situation. It has helped them put up near-300 scores on tough ODI pitches, whilst also chasing down a similar total against India’s six-bowler line-up. This third ODI, again, was the perfect example.

Quinton de Kock’s fine hundred had put them in a driving seat. Even when he got out, the score read 214-4 in the 36th over. There was every chance of South Africa crossing 300 at that point. Credit to India that they pulled things back, especially with some fantastic outfield catching. However, David Miller and Dwaine Pretorious mustered enough runs between them to set another competitive 288-run target.

It was copybook from the first ODI. Build on the start and get to a competitive total. Each of their batsmen has well-defined roles, and it has reflected in the series’ win because they have learned lessons and built on their assigned roles. In sharp contrast, even with assigned roles, India faltered because of poor in-game situation. Look at Rishabh Pant. He has batted at number four throughout the series, even playing a magical knock in the second ODI, and then threw it all away in Cape Town with a horrendous first-ball dismissal.

Just how do you walk back to the dressing room after throwing your wicket like that? A lot goes unchallenged in the garb of natural game, and Pant’s shot in this third ODI shouldn’t be excusable at all. It upset India’s rhythm, and denied them the chance to link momentum between the top and middle order. When Virat Kohli got out, they were back behind the chasing curve and needed to rebuild again. That the in-form top-order, including Shikhar Dhawan, didn’t finish the job in any of the three games is a topic for another day.

Pant’s dismissal also re-opened the debate if he should be batting at number four at all. Given his acumen (or lack thereof), and Shreyas Iyer’s slow starting nature, maybe their positions should be reversed. After the second ODI, this writer had illustrated how Shreyas had batted at number four for 12 matches straight. Just why, things needed to change in this series, is beyond comprehension.

Additionally, SKY’s quickfire knock ascertained that he should be India’s number six going ahead, even at the cost of an extra bowling option, and that the middle order needs to be reshuffled around him. Will that happen though? What happens when Rohit Sharma returns and there is a need to re-fit KL Rahul into the middle order again? These make for too many questions, and it points at this series’ loss as another opportunity missed to sort out this middle-order mess.

At the end of the South Africa-India Test series then, when coach Rahul Dravid must have sat down to write his report, top of the list would have been “sorting out that middle order”. Funnily enough, he just needs to photocopy that report for his ODI series’ purpose and make a couple of changes. Yes, that Indian middle-order needs sorting out across formats.

There is a small differentiation though. In Test cricket, Dravid needs to find adequate replacements for at least one of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, as well as help Kohli regain his focus and form. In the ODI scenario, the names are all there – Pant, Shreyas, SKY, even Rahul (when Rohit eventually returns), Ishan Kishan, Venkatesh Iyer and/or Hardik Pandya (subject to his bowling fitness).

Instead of a search operation, Dravid needs to solve a jigsaw puzzle fit for purpose in all situations and conditions.

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Updated Date: January 24, 2022 10:15:57 IST

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