As India started to prepare for the 2019 World Cup, the priority was to strengthen the middle-order. With a top-order consisting of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli and a bowling attack boasting Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the only chink in the armour seemed to be the wobbly middle-order.
Despite series of experiments, the issue was highlighted once again in the recent ODI series defeat against Australia at home as consistent failures of the middle-order allowed the opposition to make a comeback despite being 0-2 down.
With a little over two months to go for the World Cup, a period in which India would not be playing any international match, former India cricketer and ESPNCricinfo expert Sanjay Manjrekar is of the opinion that middle-order issue could prove to be India’s Achilles heel at the ICC event.
"Regardless of the squad picked for World Cup, India’s soft underbelly would be their middle-order," Manjrekar told Firstpost. "And why it’s getting highlighted is because we have tremendous class in bowling and in batting in top three. The only thing that is not measuring up to that standard is the middle-order."
The cricket-turned-broadcaster, however, added that if India manages to sort out its middle-order issue then they would be 'unstoppable'.
"If India doesn’t face middle-order issue and if there’s someone who has a great tournament at No 4 then India are unstoppable. Having said that, I must add that you can have 10 good games and then one bad match could change everything."
While MS Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav are expected to form the middle-order, it’s the No 4 slot which has given the worst nightmares to captain Virat Kohli and the team management.
More than a dozen players have failed to stake claim for the No 4 spot. Ambati Rayudu who made a return to the side after an impressive IPL 2018 seems to have made the slot his own, only to reopen old wounds with three consecutive failures in the five-match ODI series against Australia, which India lost by 2-3 margin.
So, is it time for India to try out veteran Dhoni at No 4 slot, considering the decline in his ability to up the ante at will later in the innings?
Manjrekar feels while Dhoni is crucial to India’s ODI side, he would want India to play all-rounder Vijay Shankar at No 4.
Shankar recently impressed with his ability to control the tempo of an innings during middle overs in limited overs matches in New Zealand and at home against Australia
"MS Dhoni has the best defensive technique among the middle-order options of India, so I don’t mind him coming at No 4 but the problem is that Kohli in middle overs will need a partner who can rotate the strike and hit the ball in the gaps. And that’s where I think Dhoni is not the ideal fit. So we need someone who can do that. Vijay Shankar can. Based on whatever we have seen of him, he seems like someone who can play his shots and can also defend. He seems to have the game to be a good No 4," said Manjrekar during launch of ESPNCricinfo’s Superstats.
Dhoni, the 2011 World Cup-winning captain has recently coped some criticism for the dip in his scoring rate, but Manjrekar has put his weight behind the ‘finisher’ Dhoni.
"I am happy to back with Dhoni with lesser overs remaining. I have never been a fan of Dhoni at No 4 or like that. Because he has got his own very unique way of playing and that’s why I believe he should not come in at a position where he would set the mood of the innings."
Another hot topic around India’s probable squad for the World Cup is whether to include Rishabh Pant or Dinesh Karthik as the second-choice wicket-keeper.
While Karthik has emerged as a reliable finisher, Pant failed to impress both with the bat and ball in the limited opportunities he got in the 50-over series against Aussies.
However, Manjrekar wants Pant to be included ahead of Karthik as the youngster brings ‘X factor’ to the table.
"I would take Rishabh Pant because I see Dinesh Karthik as a great value addition in T20 cricket but there’s something about Pant and Indians might just want him to be in the squad because of that X factor."
Manjrekar also pushed for inclusion of Ravindra Jadeja instead of picking a fourth seamer.
"Ravindra Jadeja should get in because we have plenty of seamers. There’s Hardik (Pandya) and Shankar as well so we are covered in that department. But if there’s a pitch where you know there’s going to be a lot of turn and you want a quick turner, spinner then Jadeja is your option," Manjrekar argued.
Despite the recent hiccup against Australia, two-time winners India remain one of the favourites to lift the coveted trophy for which the best teams from the globe would battle in England and Wales.
But as Kohli and Co dream to bring the World Cup back home, Manjrekar warned the Indian side to be wary of any complacency.
"India are the best side on skills and temperament as well. England on skills yes but temperamentally a big question mark. South Africa have the burden of history. Australia are getting better. India are best among the lot and that’s why we expect them to win the World Cup but that doesn’t mean they would win just like that," Manjrekar said. "It’s (winning) about two big nights – semis and final and anything can go wrong. So they are the best team but we shouldn’t assume that they would just go there and win it."