Rohit Sharma was understandably chuffed. Having won the fifth one-day international (ODI) match on a difficult track against hosts New Zealand — that helped India bag the series 4-1 — he opened up about how he wanted to test his batsmen on a tough wicket with the World Cup closing in.
“I had a look before the toss and we knew that there was some moisture on the pitch which will always be helpful for the fast bowlers initially, first seven to ten overs. So we decided, as a team, as a group, that we want to be going and facing those challenges, because it’s important,” he told the press.
Those who have watched Rohit’s captaincy closely in the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the odd occasions when he has led the national side would be acquainted with the natural wisdom and considerable calm that accompanies his astute leadership. So, for him to suggest that Indian batsmen and, importantly, the middle order, needed some workout must be discerned carefully.
On February 3, for the second game running, India’s top order failed to fire. In an odd sort of way, the scoreline of 18/4 would have tickled Rohit's audacious side. It was an opportunity that Ambati Rayudu — India’s most frequent Number 4 batsman since Virat Kohli took over as full-time limited-overs skipper — grabbed with both hands.
Rayudu’s innings stood out not only for the 90 runs he scored, but also for its clinical acceleration once the initial movement off the pitch subsided. In doing so, he might have sealed his berth as India’s Number 4 in the World Cup. This, however, is only a modicum of solution for the larger problem accosting the team since the 2015 edition of the tournament.
In the last couple of years, India’s top three of Rohit, Shikhar Dhawan, and Virat Kohli have contributed two-thirds of the team’s runs. That has left India's 4, 5, and 6 with far too few overs to create an impact. And with just five ODIs to go before India begin their World Cup campaign, the ‘happy headache’ that the team management keeps referring to doesn’t appear all that jovial any more.
India have lost only 13 of the 57 ODIs they have played since the beginning of 2017, and in none of those matches has the team fielded an identical 4, 5, 6 combination in the batting lineup for two consecutive games. Consequently, the middle order averages a less-than-creditable 25.10 in those matches. In the 41 games that India have won in the same period, the batsmen at 4, 5, and 6 together average 54.64 runs. The gap is telling.
In the finals and semi-finals of tournaments that India have lost in this period, the middle order has a sorry average of 11.66 runs. This is exacerbated by the fact that the team’s traditional strength — the top order — have failed in high-pressure matches: they average 8.66 runs in the finals and semi-finals lost since January 1, 2017.
At the root of the problem lies the struggle to identify an ideal No. 4. India have auditioned nine batsmen for that slot over the past two years, and the number stretches to 11 since the 2015 World Cup. Worse, there seems no ready solution in the unfortunate event of an injury or loss of form of Rayudu. The likes of Yuvraj Singh, Ajinkya Rahane, Manish Pandey, and KL Rahul have fallen by the wayside, which leaves one spot open for Dinesh Karthik, or a promotion for MS Dhoni or Kedar Jadhav — that’s three contenders for one slot again. Happy headache, anyone?
Karthik, who made his ODI debut before anyone else in the current Indian team, has played nine matches at No 4 since the start of 2017 — the second most after Rayudu — and averages 52.80, the most by any Indian in that position in past couple of years.
The constant flux at the two-down spot has had a cascading effect on the next two slots, which again have seen a number of contenders in the past couple of years: 11 different batsmen have played at No. 5, and seven have batted at No. 6.
India’s middle order is thus poised precariously on a precipice where their response mechanism oscillates between susceptible and suicidal. The fall of the second wicket at a tricky juncture in a tense chase is what the team would dread most, considering their propensity to combust at most inopportune times in most important matches, as exemplified in the 2015 World Cup semi-final and the 2017 Champions Trophy final.
Things look more consistent at No. 7, where Hardik Pandya is an automatic shoo-in if he plays. The big-hitting all-rounder has batted there in 14 of his 29 international innings, and his medium-pace bowling can come in handy in the middle overs.
An off day for Pandya, though, would mean that India’s lengthy tail would be exposed early where, barring Bhuvneshwar Kumar, few have shown the aptitude to bat. The Men in Blue enter yet another World Cup as among the favourites, and it would be worthwhile to remember that much of the aura of invincibility is built by the other-worldly heroics of their top three and the much-recent arrival of the wrist spinners. Between them could lie India’s tryst with glory.