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India's middle order conundrum continues


India_ODI_batting_middle_order_cricketIndia may have won the ODI series against West Indies 3-1. But the important question is: have India found a solution to their middle order conundrum? Though India lost only 1 match against West Indies, the 3-1 score line flatters them.

As far as batting is concerned, most of the contribution was made by Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. Apart from Ambati Rayudu, none of the middle order batsmen left a mark.

It could be argued that due to the success of the top order, the middle order does not get enough chances. But in the game that India lost in Pune, it was the middle order’s failure that resulted in India falling short by 43 runs while chasing an achievable target of 283 runs. The fact is that India’s middle order batsmen haven’t been able to make good use of the opportunities given to them and perform when needed.

If we look at India’s performance in the Asia Cup and their last 3 bi-lateral ODI series, except the final of the Asia Cup and the ODI in Mumbai where Ambati Rayudu scored a century, India have not won an ODI without one or more of their top three scoring at least a half century.

India won the series against South Africa 5-1, where India’s top run scorers were Virat Kohli (558 runs), Shikhar Dhawan (323 runs) and Rohit Sharma (170) runs. These 3 players have been rock solid at the top for India. But the problem starts after that, as India’s batting line up looks fragile in the middle and shows no sign of improving.

The most important position that is of concern for India is Number 4. Until recently, India was not sure about who was going to be their Number 4 batsman. Virat Kohli backed Rayudu for a longer run at the position and he responded by scoring 217 runs. However, India’s concerns are far from over.

Though Rayudu is one of the best options India have for that position, he hasn’t been able to rise to the occasion when the team is in critical situations. Now he has retired from first class cricket. He was not picked in the T20 squads against West Indies and Australia. India are scheduled to play only 13 more ODIs before the 2019 Cricket World Cup in England- 3 against Australia in December, 5 against New Zealand in February and 5 against Australia at home in March.

Rayudu was not picked for the recent England series due to fitness concerns (he failed the Yo-Yo Test). Now, with only 13 matches in hand, can Rayudu establish himself firmly as the first choice Number 4? This is the big question.

MS Dhoni’s form is also a matter of worry for India team. While his vast experience cannot be denied, his batting hasn’t been same as his glory days. That is why he has been constantly floated up and down in the batting order. Ideally, he should bat at number 5, given his experience and the presence of other good finishers like Jadhav and Pandya. But India have also tried different batsman like Pant, Iyer and Pandya at the number 5 position with varying levels of success.

Dhoni’s last half- century came against Sri Lanka in December 2017. India need MS Dhoni to put in a greater contribution with bat. His role in the middle overs is crucial for India, whether to set up a good target or to chase one down. Another area which Dhoni needs to work on is his scoring rate. In recent games Dhoni takes a few extra deliveries to settle down at the wicket. He struggles to take control of games till the end and win them for India.

After that comes the number 6 position where the finishers bat. At the moment, there are 2 possible options at this place- Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya. Both of them are trying to make a comeback from injury.  While Jadhav has recovered fully, Hardik is still in the process of recovery.

Jadhav has shown his abilities as a finisher, having been involved in some nail-biting finishes for India. But he hasn’t been able to go without injury for long. He suffered a hamstring injury in the 1st match of IPL 2018 and sat out for rest of the tournament. He made a comeback during the Asia Cup but again suffered the same injury in the final. He is an important asset for the Indian team because he is handy as a 6th bowler. Hardik, on the other hand, offers no certainty about when he’ll return to international cricket. Given that India plays ODIs against Australia in December, he still has time to recover.  

In an ideal scenario, India would be hoping to see these two recover and take up bat at numbers 6 and 7.

Number 8 onwards are the tail enders. Bhuvneshwar Kumar is one who might have to take some responsibility with the bat, due to the uncertainty in the Indian middle order and Bhuvi’s fairly good batting skills. He showed that in the Asia Cup final, scoring a steady 21 runs when team needed it the most. Another contender for the spot in lower-middle order is Ravindra Jadeja. He made a strong comeback in the Asia Cup, playing an anchoring role in tense chases against Afghanistan and in the final against Bangladesh.

With the 2019 Cricket World Cup in England just 7 months away, Indian selectors are still experimenting with their middle and lower-middle order. India’s middle order conundrum is well known to the world. This could turn out to be their main weakness in the 50-over tournament in 2019. Opposing teams know that once they get through India’s top 3, then the game is on.

With the 13 ODIs that India have in their hands, they should look to settle down as quickly as possible to provide stability in their middle order.

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