Last chance for India to solve its middle order puzzle

The last time Yuvraj Singh was in the Indian ODI team three years ago, he cut a forlorn figure on the cricket field. Any person who had dropped two tough catches — Quinton de Kock, who would go on to score his third successive hundred, and the one who shall not be named AB – was bound to be disappointed. He was running on borrowed time and nostalgia value: he had painfully amassed 276 runs over 15 innings in 2013, at less than 80 SR, and his bowling had petered out. By the time the second innings was washed out by persistent rain and the match was abandoned, the writing was on the wall.

The end of 2013 marked, in many ways, the end of the Indian team’s most successful ODI epoch. Between Sachin Tendulkar’s last outing in coloured clothing in March 2012, and Yuvraj Singh’s above-mentioned then-last ODI in December 2013, the team that tasted success had been disbanded.  The purge included important cogs like Sehwag, Gambhir, and Zaheer Khan, and other players who shone briefly like Yusuf Pathan, Sreesanth, and Piyush Chawla. The cumulative experience of these men tallied an astronomical 1500 ODIs.  It was not that the others were safe either; at the time, only Kohli and Dhoni were not on the selectorial chopping board.  By all counts, it was going to be difficult to find replacements.

The Indian team had been at a similar juncture sometime back. Just around six years prior, the Indian team had to make a tough choice. Three stalwarts from the Indian team – Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman – were overlooked for the CB series during the 2007-08 tour to Australia. The reason that was bandied about was “fielding issues”. Dhoni, with the weight of the 2007 T20 World cup victory behind him, had pushed for youth (as an aside, this very selection scene from his biopic was edited before release to remove the names of these cricketers). But with India winning the CB series, the move was hailed as a masterstroke.

2013 was also the year of India’s Champions trophy victory, which completed Dhoni’s box set. The presence of three Indians each amongst the top six in the batting and bowling charts hinted at a brave new world. If one were to only look at the top order, by all counts it has been a successful transition. The much pilloried Rohit Sharma has been a great success as a naturalized opener, playing some gargantuan knocks (four 150+ scores) in the process.

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Stable at the top: Variation of Batting average and strike rate of the India’s top order (1-3) versus top-9 teams in the last three eras. The returns have been more or less stable.

Since 2008, the Indian top order (1-3) has been in rude health. Recently, they have gone from strength to strength, and have improved upon the already high batting average against the top teams. Out of the top-9 teams, they boast of the highest batting average amongst the lot and their strike rate is very much in the mix. Of course, it also helps to have world-class ODI personnel like Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli in the team.

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Wobbly in the middle: Variation of batting average and strike rate of India’s middle order (4-7) versus top-9 teams in the last three eras. The batting average has dropped from its previous high levels.

On the other hand, the middle order (4-7) paints a totally different story. In the heady days of 2008-10 and 2011-13, the Indian team’s middle order had the best batting average and strike rate statistics against the other top-9 teams. The foundation of India’s 2011 World cup victory was built on shaking the ‘90s tag of poor chasers and pivoting to a chase-first team under Dhoni’s stewardship. But the last 3 years have been a departure from these ideals, and the middle order’s returns have declined in the format (fifth, behind South Africa, England, New Zealand and England).

A single statistic to capture their fall would be the Batting Index (BI). The BI is a product of the Batting Average (BA) and the Strike Rate (SR), divided by 100. Since both the constituent measures are important in ODIs, it follows that a high value of the mathematical product (BI) encompasses information about both quantities.

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Middle of the class: The evolution of the middle order’s (4-7) batting index versus other top-9 teams across the last three eras. India’s BI is not amongst the top and has registered the steepest fall in the current era.

The BI for the Indian middle order against the top teams has registered the steepest fall from its earlier peak. The plot clearly shows that the Indian middle order regressed while nearly every other top team has improved its showing in the last 3 years (the green points being equal or higher than the red and blue ones). Indian players are conspicuous by the paucity of 30+ at a 150+ SR in the same time period; same goes for 50+ partnerships at 150+ SR.  Meaning, the middle order does not pack the punch it once had. On this note, India certainly overachieved in the 2015 World cup by reaching the semis.

Ever since Rabada thwarted Dhoni in Kanpur in 2015, there have been murmurs about Dhoni’s finishing ability. Dhoni also registered some average numbers last year: an average of under 28 and a strike rate of 80, well below his stellar career benchmarks. There is also a genuine debate about his right position. However, the others have not contributed to the confusion either; the Kohli experiment at no.4 in 2015 was a failure; Rahane has not been trusted in slower pitches; Raina could not hold his place in the team; barring K L Rahul, the IPL has not thrown in any new names into the mix.

In the 6 years preceding this era, a total of 23 players were tried in the middle order, featuring in 162 matches against top opposition; that already 18 players have featured in over 50 matches against the top teams in the last three years shows the kind of flux the Indian middle order is in (matches against Zimbabwe were not included as they tend to have experimental sides).

As the Indian team goes into its last ODI series before its Champions trophy defence, the Indian team needs to solve its middle order puzzle. It is also clear that India needs Dhoni on his best form to have any chance. Jadhav, Rahul and Pandey have shown glimpses of their ability no doubt, but the selection of an old hand in Yuvraj Singh shows the selectors’ desperation in the matter.

Back in 2003, Abhijit Kale was banned for allegedly offering a bribe to get selected in the Indian middle order; today, one suspects that the selectors would be happy to offer money to anyone to unearth two worthy middle order fixtures for the Indian team (with my tongue firmly in cheek).

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