Trouble at the top

What a difference one series can make.

Going into the One-Day International leg of the India-England series in January, the Indian team looked in a spot of bother. Since 2008, India’s top order has been consistently amongst the runs and has delivered good starts. On the other hand, the middle order had found itself without lumbar support, and had regressed as a batting unit.

A typical example of India’s weakness was seen in the second semi-final of the 2015 World Cup between Australia and India. Set a target of 329 in fifty overs, the team kept pace until the thirteenth over. One wicket soon became three in the space of 31 balls and India’s chase was dismantled on the spot. India slowly limped towards a 95-run defeat with the result never in doubt the moment the middle order stepped into the chase.

The India-England ODI series was a temporary analgesic to India’s batting worries. India’s top order failed in each match, and the middle order duly delivered with big scores. Yuvraj Singh found fluency, Dhoni rediscovered his big hitting, and the India had a new batting dynamo in Kedar Jadhav – who ended up as the top scorer. All boxes ticked, India’s Champions Trophy defence in June seemed back on track.

However, the Indian Premier League has shown up the deficiencies of the Indian team in the top order. The splitting headache is back again.

Rohit Sharma has only just returned from injury; he’s still getting into his groove. He’s been put under pressure by many a legs-spinner’s googly. To make matters worse, he is not batting up the order for the Mumbai Indians team. KL Rahul was another contender, but has sat out of the IPL with a shoulder injury; he is all but ruled out of the Champions Trophy.

Ajinkya Rahane, one of the regular contenders for the opener role in overseas conditions, has not produced any big innings to throw his hat into the ring; Shikhar Dhawan has two fifties in 11 matches for Sunrisers Hyderabad (at the time of publishing). The beacon of consistency that has been Virat Kohli hasn’t stamped his authority in the tournament at all – a dry spell which he has run into after the India-England series.

In fact, the statistics pages of the IPL shows up the Indian team’s deficiencies in broad daylight. As of May 8, seven Indians, namely Suresh Raina (second), Gautam Gambhir (third), Shikhar Dhawan (fifth), Robin Uthappa (sixth), Sanju Samson (seventh), Rahul Tripathi (ninth) and Manish Pandey (tenth) occupy slots in the top-10 run-getters (the Orange Cap standings). Only Gambhir and Uthappa among these names, have scored more than thee fifty plus scores.

The strike rate statistic is even more revealing. Ajinkya Rahane’s strike rate after 12 matches hovers around the 120 mark, Shikhar Dhawan’s is marginally better at 126.79. In an era where eight runs per over is par for the course (a SR of 133.3), their IPL 2017 strike rates are out of tune with the requirements of the modern Twenty20 game.

However, India needn’t look further for inspiration – the 2013 Champions Trophy is a case in point of getting results against the grain. The top run scorers in the 2013 IPL edition had more foreigners; Rohit Sharma still batted in the middle order; no Indian opener had set the stage alight with tall scores or with the big blows. Looking back, the selection of Shikhar Dhawan was an inspired punt considering his showing in the IPL 2013 (311 runs from 10 innings at a 123 SR, three fifties); perhaps it was on the basis of his performance in the India-Australia Test series. Come to think of it, India’s squad selection to the Champions Trophy was a little bit of a shot in the dark.

Sachin Tendulkar had bowed out of the ODI format in late 2012; Sehwag and Gambhir weren’t able to maintain their high standards. It was in this scenario that Rohit Sharma was promoted as a naturalised opener in the ODI format. Until 2012, Rohit Sharma was an underwhelming middle order batsman averaging a shade under 35 runs per dismissal at a strike rate of 80. The elevation of Rohit Sharma to the opener’s slot changed his fortunes – ever since, he has scored over 3000 runs, scoring nearly 53 runs per dismissal and striking at 89 runs per 100 balls.

The selection of Shikhar Dhawan was even more inspired; he had made one fifty plus score in four outings before the 2013 Champions Trophy. He hadn’t played for Delhi in the 2012-‘13 Vijay Hazare trophy. However, in the opening match of the Champions Trophy against the South Africans, the big booming drives were back in business and India were up and running in the dog-eat-dog world tournament. He led the batting charts by the time India lifted the trophy in Birmingham (as did Ravindra Jadeja, with the bowling charts).

On the basis of historical form, Rohit Sharma deserves to walk into the opener’s slot. The identity of his batting partner is still shrouded in mystery though. Would it be wise to recall Gautam Gambhir? Will Dhawan be able to get back into his stride? What about Ajinkya Rahane? Is it worth taking a punt on Robin Uthappa? Going into the 2017 edition of the Champions Trophy, India would do well to channel the spirit of 2013.


2 thoughts on “Trouble at the top

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