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India's middle order fragility

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India_ODI_batting_middle_order_cricketIt was interesting to watch the Indian batting in the first ODI between India and New Zealand at Mumbai recently. Captain Kohli almost single-handedly lifted the Indian batting in the first innings with a superlative 121 in his 200th ODI appearance. First playing the role of stabilizer when India had a shaky start, he was aggressor in the middle and took on the role of the finisher towards the end.

While that effort by Kohli was truly laudable, what stood out was the inability of the Indian middle-order to give him able support. And, unfortunately, this is not a one-off incident. In the past few months, the Indian middle-order has displayed its brittleness time and again in the shorter formats. Despite the number of shuffles it has gone through, it remains fragile at present.

Yes, the team has been enjoying an excellent run this season. But that should not conceal the fact that there are some serious issues in their middle-order that need to be addressed. With a lot of overseas matches lined up and the 2019 World Cup in mind, the Indian team management needs to sort out their middle-order woes soon before it ends up costing them dear.

The frailties of the Indian middle-order

Between 2015 and now, as many as 11 players have batted at the No. 4 spot for India – the highest by any country in this period. A definite uncertainty has crept into the team’s middle-order. There was a time, not too long back, when the likes of Yuvraj Singh, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Suresh Raina led the Indian middle-order charge and had done exceptionally well for years.

Both Yuvraj and Raina are not in consideration for the national team at present. Dhoni, meanwhile, is not the finisher he once used to be and is struggling to perform consistently at the No. 6 position. Currently, the likes of Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey, and more recently, Dinesh Karthik, have been accompanying Dhoni and Hardik Pandya in the Indian middle-order with mixed results.

While Kedar Jadhav began brilliantly he appears to have fallen prey to inconsistency. His last ten innings are not flattering: 12, 27, 5*, 67, 2, 24, 40, 63, 0 and 1.

Jadhav has shown weakness on turning surfaces and pitches that have good pace and bounce. Spinners have gone through his defense a lot in recent times and he often struggles with both short and swinging balls from the pacers. These issues need to be addressed if he is to bat in places like South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.  

Then there is Manish Pandey. After than incredible match-winning 104* against Australia in Sydney last January, there was hope that Pandey would lead the charge of the new-age Indian middle-order. After all, the 28-year old has loads of natural talent and has been waiting in the wings for a long time. Sadly, Pandey has not been able to live up to expectations.

His technique is pretty good, but Pandey somehow fails to convert his little cameos into big scores. His last six international scores are 6, 11*, 33, 36*, 3 and 0. The Karnataka batsman has a lot more potential and really needs to push harder to produce bigger performances and have a larger impact in the team’s middle-order to lessen the burden on Virat Kohli.

ODI stalwart MS Dhoni has been struggling with patchy form for some time now. There is a question mark hovering regarding his strength as a finisher and about his precise space in the middle-order. These days, Dhoni tends to consume a lot of dot balls when he comes in to bat and then gets out rather tamely at exactly the wrong time. He has shown glimpses of his past self on occasions – that match-winning 79 against Australia at Chennai for example. However, such performances have become the exception.

His most recent international scores are 25, 13, 13, 3*, 5, 79, 1*, 1*. While he was pretty good in the ODI series against Sri Lanka, he has been found wanting against better bowling attacks, like that of Australia. In his last 7 ODI innings, Dhoni has struck just 8 fours and 2 sixes and scored only 126 runs. Given the way he is playing at the moment, perhaps it would be wiser to have him bat higher up at No.4 or No.5 where he can set his own pace and stabilize the innings.

Hardik Pandya has taken on the finisher’s role with aplomb and has been having a purple patch of late. However, he too has shown a weakness against the short ball and quality swing bowling. How he manages to overcome those in the coming months in different conditions will be the deciding factor for the Indian middle-order’s stability.

Dinesh Karthik, who has never really been able to cement his place despite being given countless chances in the past, has been selected for the ODIs against New Zealand, but it is unlikely that he will last for long. This seems to be a stop-gap arrangement rather than a long-term investment and unless Karthik pulls out something truly spectacular, one does not see him last beyond a series or two.

The way ahead

The Indian team has a long season in the months to come and carrying such a brittle middle-order is fraught with risk for the team.

There are two ways that the team management can go about this. Stick with the same players and give them the proper slots without much shuffling, so that they can settle into their positions properly, or ring in a few changes with the 2019 World Cup in mind.

Having played in just 19 ODIs, the talented Manish Pandey surely deserves to be backed for a little longer. Time, however, is running out for Kedar Jadhav and MS Dhoni. With young and supremely talented batsmen like KL Rahul, Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant waiting in the wings, it is about time these two sort their issues out quickly. Yes, Dhoni does provide his experience. But he needs to back that with consistent performances and stability for the batting unit. Because the youngsters out there deserve to be given a good run and it would be unfair on them if that isn’t the case.  

Both Iyer and Pant have shown a remarkable penchant for scoring big runs in pressure situations in first-class cricket. KL Rahul has had a dream run in the last season across formats and was out of the side due to injury lately. One simply cannot overlook such talent at the cost of non-performing players. Also, the Indian middle-order has looked the same in the recent past. Bringing in young, passionate and talented blood might just be the tonic this Indian team needs to rejuvenate its middle-order.

The Indian team has always boasted of some of the best batsmen in the world in their lineup. Strangely, though, it has been after a long time now that an Indian batting unit appears fragile. Their dependency on Virat Kohli is eerily similar to the Indian team of the early 90s where Sachin Tendulkar was literally a one-man army for the team. Unless the middle-order woes are sorted out soon, the team is likely to suffer in the days to come.

 

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