The 2019 World Cup is little over a year away and India still hasn’t been able to solve one of their most important issues — the middle order muddle.
The selectors have been trying to form a stable middle order core for the past one year and that has somehow revolved around finding that proper No 4 batsman. They have tried out everyone starting from the likes of Yuvraj Singh, Manish Pandey, KL Rahul to the likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Dinesh Karthik and Kedar Jadhav at that position. But, they have failed to reach a conclusion as none of them have shown the consistency and dependability required to cement that position.
However, the selectors have been pretty reluctant or rather hesitant to slot Mahendra Singh Dhoni permanently at No 4 even though he has produced some of the best performances in crisis situations in recent times.
The Indian think tank is hell-bent on keeping him tagged to the finisher’s role down the order even though it has become pretty clear in recent times that his big hitting abilities are waning. Instead of finding more players with big hitting abilities to take up up Dhoni’s role down the order, the think tank is trying to find the No 4 batsman when they have the deserving player for that spot right under their noses.
He might not be the same big-hitting batsman who could change the course of the game in no time as he used to be during his peak days. Still, he is invaluable and irreplaceable for some of his other skills which are still the best in the business.
The Indian think tank is not making the best use his other batting skills like the game awareness and his ability to control the pace of the innings during the middle overs.
On Tuesday, in the fifth ODI against the hosts South Africa at Port Elizabeth, Dhoni once again failed to produce anything meaningful as he managed only 13 runs off 17 deliveries walking out to bat at number seven in the 43rd over of the innings.
In the previous match, however, he had played a good hand of an unbeaten 42 almost at a run-a-ball. That was mainly because he had walked out to bat six overs earlier than at Port Elizabeth. So, that certainly gave him some extra time to settle down. Still, 40-odd runs at a run-a-ball are surely not something you would want from a batsman batting at number six.
In a total of four innings in this series, Dhoni’s total accumulation is just 69 runs batting at No 6 or lower and that too, at a strike rate of 81.17 which is nowhere near to meeting the demands of modern-day slog-overs batting. He is getting criticized from every nook and corner for not being able to produce substantial performances in the slog overs.
But, is it actually his fault?
The answer is no. More than the Indian think-tank’s reluctance to slot Dhoni in the top four or five, it is their exaggerated fascination for him playing down the batting order that is resulting in the whole middle order muddle.
Let's consider his performances at different positions in the last couple of years because considering the statistics before that time period might not give any clear idea about his waning big hitting abilities.
In the last two years, he has registered a strike rate of 80.85 batting at number six or lower, amassing a total of 452 runs in 16 innings, figures which are far off from fitting into the modern day finishing scheme of things.
For some reason, they have still not accepted that Dhoni is not the player anymore who can walk out and start hitting from the word go. The selectors just don’t seem to be able to move on from that fact.
Instead of slotting him permanently in the top four, right after Virat Kohli, he is still being used in the lower order. Dhoni has amassed 683 runs at a strike rate of 85.05 batting at No 5 or higher in the last couple of years. His strike rate higher up the order may still not seem to be extraordinary when compared to that of 80.85 down the order in the last two years or his career strike rates of 94.98 and 88.10 at No 4 and 5 respectively. But, one has to look at the impact he has created whenever he has batted higher up in the past couple of years.
His innings of 134 vs England at Cuttack last year in January came while batting at No 5 in a record-breaking partnership of 256 runs with Yuvraj Singh. He had walked out to bat when India was struggling at 25/3 in the 5th over of the innings and returned to the pavilion in the 47th over with India’s score reading 358/6. India went on to win the match by 15 runs.
His innings of 63 off 52 deliveries against Sri Lanka at the Oval during Champions Trophy last year and another innings of 78* off 79 deliveries against West Indies at Antigua in June last year were also something that he scored while batting at No 5. India won the match against the West Indies comfortably. Although India had to face defeat against Sri Lanka in the ICC Champions Trophy, Dhoni's knock had guided them to a total more than 300 runs. Batting first.
Also, his innings of 80 off 91 deliveries against New Zealand back in October 2016 was also something that came while batting at No 4. India were in trouble at 41/2 while chasing 286 runs for victory. But, he combined with Virat Kohli to stitch a 151-run partnership and thus propelled India to the doors of victory.
So, it is quite clear why Dhoni should go higher up the order as the impact that he creates with his performances is enormous. Moreover, it's not only about batting higher up, it's mainly about him having time at the crease.
The wicket-keeper batsman has also produced some strong batting performances at No 6 in the last couple of years whenever India were in trouble quite early in the innings and Dhoni had time at the crease. His 45* and 67* in back to back games against Sri Lanka at Pallekele came while India were struggling while chasing.
The 36-year-old's innings of 79 off 88 deliveries against Australia at Chennai in last September came while India were 4 down for less than a hundred runs. Moreover, his innings of 65 against Sri Lanka at Dharamsala came on a seaming track where other Indian batsmen had succumbed.
So, all Dhoni needs is time at the crease and he is the best player to be present at the crease during the middle overs to control the pace of the innings.
With the World Cup nearing, the Indian think-tank should give it a shot. It's time to settle down and slot Dhoni right next to Kohli in the batting order. You can't solve a puzzle with a wrong piece in the wrong place. Similarly, lower order is not where Dhoni belongs to now. It’s time to push him up for the games ahead!