When will India’s soft underbelly, the middle order, trip and topple them? Or will the bowlers keep squeezing them through? That will decide India’s fate in the world cup. We might get a preview of what they are capable of if England bat first and roll up a big score.
Before the world cup began, after the team was selected, it was clear that India’s run will come down to two men: Shikhar Dhawan and Hardik Pandya. The other good things were a given: the bowlers’ great show, Rohit and Kohli’s run-fests.
Dhawan was an extremely vital cog: not just for his left-hander’s advantage at the start but how he could ease the burden and almost nullify the need for middle order to contribute heavily.
And Pandya for two things: for his finishing that takes the pressure off MS Dhoni, and his bowling, that can ease or increase the captain’s burden. Thus far, Pandya has held his end. If Dhawan was there, the chances of all three – him, Sharma, and Kohli – failing was rare. The middle order would have come into the match that much later, and India could have had the luxury of sending Pandya ahead of Dhoni – because there won’t be much overs left, no need for consolidation, and Pandya could do his thing standing from outside off stump. That hope has long been buried.
With Dhawan gone, now the middle order has to earn its bread. Prove its worth. But nearly everyone there seems to be batting one slot too high for them. And it then creates turbulence in Dhoni, who now has to be everything: the anchor to finisher and the man who sets targets for India when batting first. But what would happen when India are chasing and one of the two (Rohit or Kohli) don’t fire.
Of course, there is KL Rahul and India would hope he steps up. He is bit like early Sharma, in the effect he has on the fans and former players. ‘Oh he looks so good,’ they would drawl, eyes twinkling away in love. Now they do it with Rahul. Cheteshwar Pujara had a wry observation to make on the “looks good” phenomenon that delayed his Test debut by at least 3-4 years. Seven years ago, just three Tests old, he had told this correspondent about the painful wait. “There is no use hitting two sixes and getting out. Those on-the-up shots gets the commentators and fans talking but no one really looks what happens after that. People can get found out in tough conditions. I think people have realised that now.”
Now Rahul is in that boat. He is obviously a good batsman but somehow, he has been unable to get his act together. Right through the last Test series in England, the problem was obvious almost: he just played from the crease, rarely getting forward or going back. He never changed it, and it’s still the same now. It should work on flatter tracks but quality in world cup teams means the bowlers keep testing him out. Even West Indies figured him out. ‘Even’ because it seemed they had got carried away with the short-ball stuff in some of the previous losses, triggering ire from the likes of Clive Lloyd. But with Rahul, after serving back of length stuff, they would suddenly hurl one fuller to check – and it was on one of those times, he was bowled. Driving from the crease.
Focus on Shankar
Rahul has to find a way out but if he doesn’t then the pressure comes to the middle order. Vijay Shankar needs that one big knock to settle down but more the delay in its arrival, the worse the confidence is likely to go. In IPL, the problem was much clearer to spot. He would dawdle along on arrival, pushing and tapping around, and then say around the 15th over mark, he would go for a big hit. Usually, an ill-advised pull or pre-determined lofted hit that would invariably drop into a fielder’s palms.
The longer 50-over scenario should help his batting style but he has come in pressure situations. He has this tendency to keep pushing (or driving) his bat inside the line. Inevitably, one arrives with his name on it. The Kemar Roach delivery was a pretty good one, it came in with the angle before seaming away a touch, or rather holding its line and for a man who loves swishing inside line, it was game over.
One of the reasons for Shankar’s presence is for exactly this situation. When there is a semi-crisis in the middle overs, he can stabilise the innings with his steady conventional batting.
Then comes Kedar Jadav. He has a pretty good defensive technique actually, but that urge that batsmen who bat lower in the order have – the itch to keep feeling for the ball gets him into troubles. Otherwise, he has that nonchalance in the middle that captains like. An illusion that there is no crisis when there is a crisis. He can push and tap, he can run hard if needed, and he can of course hit out too.
All this would be almost immaterial if the Dhoni of old was around, of course. He could have taken command, dragged the innings ahead and then decided to stun everyone with the way he would finish. That isn’t a given now.
It can happen of course but it’s not a certainty anymore. It can’t be the match plan. It can’t be India’s way anymore. They need the middle order – that No. 4 and No. 5 – to fire. And now. But what’s a world cup campaign without one or two hurdles? You got to earn that cup.
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