In 1974, in a remote corner of the Thar Desert called Pokhran, the Indian government conducted its first nuclear bomb test. Looking back, this was a seismic (in many ways) event in world politics. A country which had not yet become self- sufficient in agriculture (and whose malnourished subjects were often cover page images for western magazines) was now the first country outside the permanent members of the UN Security Council to have nuclear weapons. Codenamed Smiling Buddha, it was ironic that it was named after a sage who advocated peace. It must have been the work of an enthusiastic and overactive diplomatic civil servant- one who wanted to stress India’s “peaceful” intention. It was the shining example of India developing deterrence and second strike capability against military belligerents.
Fast forward to this time last year, another seismic shift had happened in Indian cricket. M S Dhoni had retired from the test format and handed over reins to Virat Kohli. With abject showings in England and Australia, the calls for a new captain were welcomed as Kohli had just led a spirited chase in Adelaide. With the World cup looming on the horizon, a tired India sleepwalked through the ODI leg of the tour. India could have afforded it- it had the best W/L record in the last 2 years as well as in neutral and away locations. It held both the ODI championships simultaneously, something only managed by the almighty Australian team and the Indian team of the 1980s vintage. It exited the tournament unable to keep up with a high score chase in the semifinals.
Before that game, the middle order had shown signs of being rickety for quite a while. In the 2014 T20 World Cup final, Yuvraj Singh, hero of the 2007 and 2011 World cup triumphs, batted as if he was under a hex. The top order had been in good shape- 3 Indians were in the top 8 batting averages in the preceding 2 years (min. 500 runs) when an average top order player scored 35 runs at 80 SR per dismissal. After all, they had fashioned the communist regime led inflationary spiral powered run buffets against the Australians at home. The middle order was a different story though; only 2 Indians were present in the top 15– Raina languished in the 20th position. It has been more of the same in the last year, a watershed moment for India’s ODI generation.
|Year||Batting average||Strike rate|
Table 1: Year-wise batting stats of India’s most regular middle order in the last 10 years. Red text indicates a below average performance w.r.t the world average whereas Green text indicates an above average performance.
The Indian top order performances dropped below by a notch in 2015. The middle order? It was stuck in quicksand- every time it tried to hit itself out of trouble, it sunk even lower. Only Dhoni had satisfactory numbers in 2015 but murmurs had become louder even after scoring 45 runs per dismissal at 86 SR. Even England, who were ridiculed for their limited overs ineptitude since the early 1990s, seemed to have got their act together. One by one, India’s big guns have fallen by the wayside. Yuvraj was the first to depart from the ODI team and recently, Raina was dropped. To make matters worse, no ready replacements dot the horizon.
The gaping hole in the middle order has been historically covered well by M S Dhoni’s heroics and it is no surprise that it has reared its ugly head in his worst year since 2007. This time around, he is all alone in the midst of greenhorns, with people questioning his skills, his decision to bat higher and his place in the team. The 2012 ODI rules have ruined the team’s balance by robbing the contribution of the part timer. Dhoni may not show the pressure but for a man fascinated with the Indian army, he would surely associate with the feeling of being in the crosshairs. After many years of splendid service, he has earned the right to bat higher up the order thus becoming the point where the batting order pivots, a la Imran Khan in the 1992 World cup. He may not have the big hitting prowess of old but he more than makes it up with his ODI cadence. Furthermore, along with personnel changes, India are struggling to come up with a new template for big hitting. This has reflected in the strike rates- in 2015, 12 middle order players scored at more than run a ball and an Indian is not amongst them. To add insult to injury, India’s middle order scored slower than England, New Zealand and Bangladesh in 2015.
Table 2: Year-wise instances of big hitting by middle order batsmen (30+ runs @ 150+ SR in an ODI inning). Red text indicates a below average number of instances w.r.t the world average whereas Green text indicates an above average number of instances.
With the T20 World cup looming on the horizon, India has no answer to the “Who would take strike for India in a super over scenario?” question. Ever since the ODI rules changed in 2012, there has been a glut of high octane scores (minimum score of 30 to minimize the effect of a few lucky edges) by the middle order (by ~2.5 times). The recent rules changes have not reined in the stroke makers. India were the team to follow prior to 2012, with a higher than average number of explosive exploits from the middle order; since 2013 though, the party scene has shifted firmly to the southern hemisphere. It comes as no surprise that India’s 3 fellow semi- finalists have lifted their game during India’s decadence.
In the years preceding India’s nadir, Dhoni and Raina featured regularly in the number of scores over 150 strike rate list. They have been India’s nuclear weapons for the last five years (with the above 11 accounting for 58 of the 118 scores from 2011 to 2015). However, in 2015, only one inning each by Rahane and Raina made the cut- meaning, India’s personnel have not shown big hitting chops for a while. The bench strength cupboard is pretty bare; the IPL, which is supposed throw clues about a suitable combustible batsman has no new name for the billboard. The man with the highest strike rate (min: 300 runs) is Rohit Sharma, who is a top order batsman for India. The corresponding tables for the preceding seasons also reaffirm the theme of poverty. On this note, India is certainly not amongst the favourites for the upcoming T20 world cup unless one player has a whirlwind tournament; and, India overachieved in the 2015 World cup. Simply put, India has no deterrence or second strike capability for a high score chase without the help of its top order.
It is no coincidence that India lost steam after losing its top order in the semi- final in the 2015 World Cup. India should have recognized the warning signs when no new player cemented his middle order spot in the last 2 years. The same leitmotif of missed opportunity runs loud and clear in the 2 generations of Indian cricketers of the noughties- barring Sehwag and Dhoni, no one else has a legitimate shot at all- time greatness. The last time an India player on the fringes played an innings to strike fear into the opposition’s hearts was in 2011, when Yusuf Pathan (who was a super- over candidate) single handedly took India within sight of the target. Dhoni himself has talked about the paucity of ready for launch options on the eve of the first match, hinting at a systemic problem. India certainly would do well with greater batting depth and will hope to uncover one batting bright spot in this tour. Gurkeerat Singh and Rishi Dhawan have shown clutch batting performances against Australia A and Bangladesh A in the last few months and their progress will be viewed quite closely. A good showing would go a long way in providing much needed lumbar support to the Indian team; and bring a smile to the old man on his last legs, who is probably playing his last world event in 2016– the Smiling budha.
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