Updated: July 9, 2019 8:55:11 am
It feels strange to say that but India’s success from hereon in the World Cup could well come down to the success of KL Rahul as an opener. Sometimes, success creates problems. If anything can upset the applecart, it’s this. India don’t have a man in the middle for a semi-crisis. The entire World Cup has been played in a retro style by most teams. Preserve wickets, slowly accelerate, and then try to escalate at the end.
India have a post-modern team filled with attackers in the middle overs but they are playing retro style. Rishabh Pant, Dinesh Karthik and MS Dhoni are there but, thus far, there has been no explosion. It begs the question that wouldn’t a batsman (a specialist of sorts) be better placed at No.4? Around whom the attackers can play their natural game and it would also make Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli breathe easy without fretting as if the world’s burden is on their shoulders.
That man could be (have been) Rahul. Like Australia have Steve Smith and New Zealand Kane Williamson. In particular, Australia’s template is a lot closer to India’s as the Kiwis depend too much on Williamson. Not Australia; they still have David Warner and Aaron Finch in great form (like Sharma and Kohli) and require Smith to drop anchor, if needed, or carry on the good work of the openers.
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In a semi-crisis, it feels almost as if there is no crisis when Smith walks out to bat. But in a similar position, India have Pant and with the sinking feeling that it’s Karthik to follow. Both too early in the piece and not having the solidity in their game to soak up the pressure and drop anchor and guide the team through. They can (they are pretty good players, of course) but that goes against their natural game and skill sets. They might pull it off but it’s not a sustainable investment. One can’t bank on them. A hint of brittleness does come through.
If a bowler is in the midst of a good spell – say, Lockie Ferguson, the fastest New Zealand bowler who returns for this game after resting the previous one against England – and has taken out the top-order batsmen, Pant or Karthik don’t give the assurance they can tackle a quality spell, especially if the day proves to be cloudy (rain is expected in Manchester on match day). If the top order falls, the current middle order can too. That’s why India was desperate to blood in a relative novice in Vijay Shankar at that spot initially – not because they didn’t know he was inexperienced but they thought he had the more solid game among the alternatives to tackle such situations. That it didn’t prove that way is a different matter altogether.
Pant and Karthik can be very good once those ahead of him have given a great start. Once the set-up is provided. But if they are the ones to head the repair and revival job, it can be bit of a worry. Even in the IPL, Karthik has earned the reputation of a batsman who is at home in the last five overs. Pant was much better, of course, and that’s why he plays in Tests but in the here and now, he seems to be one spot above what is ideal for him.
There is an alternative and it should have been tried out in the game against Sri Lanka. Mayank Agarwal at the top and Rahul at no. 4. Agarwal doesn’t even have to make a fifty or a hundred, all he needs is to be there for 10 overs – his job is done. It means Sharma and Kohli can bat with the knowledge that an in-form and well-equipped batsman in Rahul is to follow them. Imagine the relief. In case, there is a run fest from the top three, they can even get Hardik Pandya ahead of Rahul. With Pant to follow. So that base is also covered. Also, with Ravindra Jadeja (surely, he is set to play along with Yuzvendra Chahal) there, the lower order isn’t too weak – but again, they all will look that much better with some solidity at No. 4.
Just imagine how good this team (and also how no other team has been exceptionally strong) is that despite the absence of Shikhar Dhawan, its has almost sailed through to the semifinals. Some awesome performances have unfurled for this to happen: Five hundreds from Sharma in a tournament – just to put that in perspective, here is a jaw-dropping stat. Only one other batsman in the 142 years of Test cricket has scored five hundreds in one series. Clyde Walcott of West Indies in a series against Australia in 1955 had five tons. And now Sharma has replicated the insane feat.
Jasprit Bumrah hasn’t even taken that many wickets with the new ball but has been absolutely brilliant, at the top of his game, and pulled off tight games – like he did against Afghanistan in the chase. A team could be 285 for 5, say, in the 44th over – with any other team, they can expect a flood of runs – but now they have to factor in Bumrah’s three overs and settle for something more mundane – don’t give wickets to him, let’s try scoring off the others. Which other Indian has had that effect? Never ever before. Teams used to do that with Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in their pomp; it feels almost surreal to see an Indian having that kind of effect.
Mohammed Shami (he has to replace Bhuvneshwar Kumar) has been sensational with the new ball, already bowled the (new) ball of the tournament and Shai Hope might still be watching YouTube videos to see what he could have done to stop that delivery from clattering into the stumps. And don’t forget Pandya. For all the mocking he gets, his bowling has been spot on this World Cup and a big factor in India managing to play five bowlers.
And they could still cruise their way through but one can’t escape that nagging feeling about their batting. But only Imran Khan as skipper would have had the vision, stature and guts to make changes now and get in Agarwal at the top and push Rahul to the middle. It’s such a difficult move now – Rahul has hit a hundred, Pant has been more than serviceable in the middle, Dhoni can now bat without the pressure of expectations.
Though it would take a brave man to make those changes for the fear of it backfiring and the subsequent backlash that would erupt, consider this scenario – what if Agarwal gets out for 13 runs after playing five overs? It’s still a better situation then Rahul getting out for the same, and Indians fretting about whether their current middle order can pull them out of a mess. There is no certainty anyway but in the battle of probabilities, Rahul at 4 looks a better punt.
But that is unlikely to happen. And so, it also makes the semifinal rather interesting for Trent Boult, Ferguson and Co. It would be such an irony that No. 4, a problem that India has faced for the last two years but have been unable to solve, comes back to bite them.
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