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Middle order a big question mark for India

The middle order is a weak link for India in ODIs going forward.

Team India
Indian team. (Photo by LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Virat Kohli-led Team India is in the middle of the golden run across formats as they have recently won all the matches on the Sri Lanka tour. Prior to that, they won the ODI series in West Indies, were runners up in Champions Trophy and had won every series in the grand home season. But most of this success has come on the back of some prolific batting by the top order. Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, and Virat Kohli have done the bulk of the scoring which hasn’t tested the middle order at all in the ODIs. Also, whenever they have been put under pressure by the opposition, more often than not, the calmness of MS Dhoni has bailed them out from tricky situations.

Inconsistency of middle order

There is a saying in cricket, ‘As long as the team is winning, everything is fine. But one bad game and people start finding problems in the same team.’ Fortunately or unfortunately, it has not been happening with the Indian team. The sooner it happens, the better it is for the Men in Blue, keeping in mind the 2019 World Cup.

India has won most of the matches in the recent past but has lost a few as well. Whenever they have lost a match, it could be seen that their top order has failed and the batting has collapsed. What this means is, Men in Blue has been struggling with their middle order for a long time now. No. 4 and 5 are very vital positions in ODI cricket where the batsman has to either consolidate or bank on the advantage gained by the top order. Team India’s batsmen at the same position have been doing the latter very well but when it comes to bailing the team out of trouble, they have not found an ally only in MS Dhoni.

Let us take a few recent examples of this year:

  1. India were chasing a mammoth total of 339 in the final of Champions Trophy against Pakistan and were reduced to 33/3 in the 9th over. Yuvraj Singh and Dhoni, the most experienced duo of Indian cricket currently, batted at 4 and 5 and were dismissed on 22 and 4 respectively. India lost the final by a whopping 180 runs. The top order had failed for the first time in the whole tournament and the others fell like ninepins.
  2. In the recently concluded Sri Lanka tour, during the second ODI Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma provided India with a brilliant start chasing 232 but fell in quick succession and the onus was on the middle order to take the team over the line. What followed was a procession as they surrendered in front of rookie Akila Dananjaya as he reduced the visitors to 132/7. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Dhoni had to play out of their skin with immense determination and concentration to win the game for India. In this match, Kedar Jadhav and skipper Virat Kohli mustered only 1 and 4 runs respectively at 4 and 5.
  3. Again in the next game, the brilliance of Rohit and Dhoni steered India home after being reduced to 61/4 chasing a paltry 216. KL Rahul scored 17 and Kedar Jadhav bagged a duck at the same positions.

Oppositions have figured out a way to put the famous Indian batting line-up under pressure – scalping the top order wickets as quickly as you can and the middle order will automatically succumb. That is what Pakistan and Sri Lanka did in England.

Players unable to nail down the No. 4 slot

The team management has given chances to so many players at the crucial No. 4 position but none of the batsmen have been able to make that position of their own. Virat Kohli who used to play that role perfectly has moved up to number 3 and the lack of finishers meant Dhoni could never come up the order.

Suresh Raina was given a longer rope at both the positions than anybody else since the start of Champions Trophy 2013 but he failed to combine his aggression with caution. While he scored runs at a strike rate of around 100, he could play longer innings which could lead his team to victory consistently. Raina played 44 innings at 4&5 combined and could only amass 1206 runs at an average of 31.73 with a couple of centuries. As a result, he lost his position in the team post the home series against South Africa in 2015.

Suresh Raina
Suresh Raina. (Photo Source: Twitter)

Ajinkya Rahane was tried at second drop for a considerable period but the lad from Mumbai could not seal it as well. He scored 703 runs in 20 innings at an average of 37 and strike rate of 85.21 but was not continued as he was found guilty of his not being able to rotate the strike in the middle overs. Now he is in the team as the reserve opener and warms the bench more often than not.

Yuvraj Singh has not done badly either but he is past his prime now and has been struggling with his fitness. The southpaw has averaged 41.54 in 13 innings at 4 with a single big knock of 150 against England. Take that innings out and the stats would look ordinary. At 5 he has fared even worse, with 33 runs in 5 innings.

The likes of Dinesh Karthik and Ambati Rayudu were not given consistent opportunities as they were in and out of the side. The former played extremely well in the middle order during India’s triumph at Champions Trophy in 2013 but was dropped since then. He did no harm to his chances once again in West Indies ODIs in July this year but has found himself out of the squad after the tour.

Current options for Team Management

So what are the options team management is having ahead of the important series against Australia? KL Rahul and Manish Pandey, both have been retained in the squad and they will play the crucial role in the middle order. Pandey has always performed in the limited opportunities and deserves more games to prove his worth. He is looking a decent player to invest in at 5 for the upcoming World Cup. On the other hand, time is running out for KL Rahul as he failed in Sri Lanka miserably and the Australian series has to be his last chance.

Manish Pandey
Manish Pandey. (Photo Source: Twitter)

What if both of them fail to impress?

Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri must have surely thought of getting the team combinations right by the end of this home season. So what if Rahul and Pandey fail to impress against Australia? They have to try going back to Dinesh Karthik who is vying to get his place back into the national side despite doing well. He will also give the extra wicket keeping option in case Dhoni is rested or injured in any of the games. Apart from that, he is an excellent fielder which is so important these days.

Dinesh Karthik
Dinesh Karthik of India. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Ajinkya Rahane could be given a go once more in the middle order as he will not get a look in as an opener because Rohit and Dhawan are in top form. He has the form with him as he was the Man of the Series in West Indies. Even MS Dhoni could try himself at number 5 for more matches as far as Kedar Jadhav is playing well at 6.

India has so many options available to try but the time has come for the players to know their exact role. It is better to clear the things in the 11 ODIs during the home season as the Men in Blue would be on road for most of the time next year and then suddenly the mega event would be only six months away. Whoever nails down the position needs some time to adapt to the situation in English conditions and hence the question still remains unanswered, “When will India’s fate in the middle order end?”

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