This is how the stats read for the Indian middle-order in the ODIs over the past one year. KL Rahul: Six matches, 37 runs, average 9.25. Manish Pandey: 10 matches, 171 runs, average 34.20. Kedar Jadhav: 17 matches, 243 runs, average 22.09. Jadhav missed the England tour due to injury. Dinesh Karthik: Nine matches, 204 runs, average 51.00. This looks impressive but he struggled in the seaming conditions in England.
The four players comprise the Indian middle-order for the Asia Cup, along with Ambati Rayudu, who has returned to the international fold after two years. MS Dhoni is kept out of the pack, for he is a lot more than just the numbers as he is seen often marshalling players on the field and being a constant source of advice for the bowlers.
Captain Virat Kohli, in a league of his own, has opted for rest after a gruelling England series. Three other middle-order batsmen – Ajinkya Rahane (a backup opener in 50 overs cricket, who batted down the order in the ODIs in South Africa earlier this year), Suresh Raina and Shreyas Iyer have been in and out of the squad. They were not picked for this tournament.
India play their first match in the Asia Cup against Hong Kong on Tuesday, but in the grand scheme of things, with an eye to the World Cup just nine months away, the defending champions’ tournament opener here is only a trailer. The next game, just a day later, against Pakistan, would be the actual beginning. As a whole, however, the Asia Cup provides the team with another opportunity to have a look at the middle-order, which is still unsettled.
India’s stand-in captain, Rohit Sharma, chose not to live in denial. In fact, he was refreshingly candid, as he addressed the issue. “I won’t say the middle-order is not gelling well. Gelling well is not the right term. Yeah, it’s not settled. We all know about it because there have been a lot of guys who have played at that position. Going forward we want everything to be settled, but it gives opportunity to the guys to come and play the cricket they like to play and seal the spot,” Rohit said.
In fact, India’s middle-order in the short form has become a merry-go-round. Rahane, Pandey, Jadhav and Rahul had been part of the Indian ODI squad in Sri Lanka last year. The next ODI series, against Australia at home saw Ravindra Jadeja’s inclusion for the first three ODIs before he was dropped for the last two matches. After that India hosted Sri Lanka last winter and the MSK Prasad-led selection committee had brought on Iyer, Karthik and Washington Sundar. The latter wasn’t included in the South African touring party.
The youngster had been brought back for the ODIs in England, although he didn’t get any game time. Rayudu had made the cut, riding on a fantastic IPL for Chennai Super Kings. But he failed the yo-yo tests and Raina replaced him. Rahul, too, earned a recall but Rahane fell out of favour, notwithstanding his decent performance in South Africa.
The constant chopping and changing has had been a reason for the middle-order vulnerability. Players are seemingly always looking over their shoulder. When Sourav Ganguly was the captain, he always insisted on giving a player at least six-seven matches at a stretch before making an assessment. MS Dhoni, too, stressed upon consistency during his glorious reign as India captain. Back to the present, and an iffy middle-order appears to be India’s biggest concern in the lead-up to the quadrennial showpiece next year.
Rohit, though, refused to send negative vibes. “I wouldn’t say it’s a concern, but if you look at the future, as a captain or player you want your team to be settled and even the guys who are eyeing that spot want to be settled. Nobody likes to be dropped and brought back into the squad.
“We want everyone to be feeling safe and settled, so that they can play freely. Right now looking at all the guys who are eyeing that spot, mentally they look fresh and are raring to go. I guess they are just a performance away from making their claim for that particular spot.”
The stop-gap skipper mentioned about batting positions being up for grabs. “No. 3, 4, 6 – all those positions are up for grabs. Obviously we want to give as many chances as possible to the guys to make sure the No.4 and 6 spots are sealed.”
It would be interesting to see where Rahul fits in. He batted at No. 4 in England. But here, in Kohli’s absence, the Karnataka batsman might move a place up the order. Shikhar Dhawan had a horror show in England in Tests, but in white-ball cricket and on Asian pitches, the left-hander is a different beast. He is also the vice-captain of this side.
The team management will have to choose between Pandey, Rayudu, Jadhav and Karthik for two middle-order slots. Jadhav’s slingy off-spin makes him a utility cricketer. With back-to-back matches lined up, and the second one against Pakistan, batting rotation looks unlikely.
In the Dubai heat, however, rotation of the fast bowlers might become imperative. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has returned from a back injury. Jasprit Bumrah had a fantastic Test series in England. The two are India’s fast-bowling gold standard, while Shardul Thakur and Khaleel Ahmed provide adequate back-ups.
Rohit had high praise for young Khaleel, the left-arm quick from Rajasthan. “I’m quite excited about Khaleel. Of course he is a great variation to squad. Also he generates quite a bit of pace. He is young, quite talented and can swing the ball as well. I’m quite excited about his addition to the squad. Yes, I’m looking forward to him play and do well for the country,” the captain said.
Rohit also described Nuwan Seneviratne, a left-arm throwdown specialist from Sri Lanka, as an “important” addition.