India's vulnerability in the middle-order was exposed by England at Lord's on Saturday
It has been more than a year since the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy final at the Oval in London when England and India clashed in the second ODI at Lord’s on Saturday. In exactly a year’s time, the final of the 2019 ICC World Cup will be held at the same venue which has been perennially hailed as the ‘home of cricket’.
What transpired at Lord’s on Saturday will have given Virat Kohli’s men horrible flashbacks of their 180-run thumping at the hands of arch-rivals Pakistan a year ago and will give them plenty of food for thought ahead of the 12 months that lie in store between now and the World Cup.
Faced with a daunting chase of 323 after being made to chase by England skipper Eoin Morgan, India’s familiar middle-order woes came to the surface once again as their top-order stumbled. It had been a similar story in the loss to Pakistan where the scoreboard pressure of a 300-plus chase had proved to be too much to handle for the middle-order after the stars at the top failed.
For the past two years or so, the men in blue have been heavily reliant on the top three of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Kohli to do the bulk of the run-scoring. Such has been their consistency that the middle-order has barely been tested to the hilt and on the rare occasions they have been so, they have failed to deliver the goods more often than not.
Kohli had spoken about the importance of testing middle-order combinations in the tour of UK and based on Saturday’s showing, the team management has a lot of thinking to do if they want to be serious contenders for the World Cup showdown.
The in-form KL Rahul was unable to make a dent after being dismissed for a duck while Suresh Raina showed some fight before throwing away a decent start. MS Dhoni’s patchy 59-ball 37 even drew audible boos from the largely India-centric crowd at Lord’s, forcing Kohli to come to his defence in the post-match press conference.
In his last 13 ODI innings, Dhoni has scored 267 runs at an average of 29.66. While the average is still decent for a batsman who comes lower down the order, the strike-rate of 78.07 is a worrisome trend. With Dhoni’s growing inability to up the ante, the pressure on the other middle-order batsmen has only grown manifold.
In Hardik Pandya, India have an all-rounder who can turn it around with the bat on his day but Saturday was not to be that case. Unlike England, India does not have the luxury of a deep batting-order with its tail starting from the No8 position.
As such, the onus on the likes of Rahul, Raina and Pandya to perform when the top-order fails is even greater. The troubling aspect for India is that they have been nowhere close to solving their middle-order riddle in the past year with various batsmen being tried in those slots.
While Rahul and Raina are the current batsmen in the roles, the likes of Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey and Ajinkya Rahane have all been given a run with mixed results. Jadhav’s injury and Ambati Rayudu’s subsequent failure in the Yo-Yo test opened the doors for an ODI return for Raina in the ongoing series. It is his ability to provide a sixth bowling option that has seen him being favoured over Dinesh Karthik who continues to wait for a chance on the sidelines.
With the top-order very much secured along with Dhoni and Pandya being unshakable from their roles in the team, India are left with a conundrum in the remaining two middle-order slots. They will be hoping Rahul can seize his chance to hold down one of the slots but there still remains a question-mark over the other position.
The upcoming 12 months, starting with the ODI series decider at Headingley on Tuesday, will need to be devoted to solving those last few pieces of the puzzle or else results like Saturday’s will become a familiar sight.