Fixing the Indian ODI middle order

Indian cricketer Yuvraj Singh (R) and ca

Middle order champions: India need to give the newcomers a fair chance before the 2019 World cup. Image source: 1.

After the dust settled on the Champions trophy 2017, the Indian team embarked on yet another one day international tour just days after an important international tournament, followed by a tour to Sri Lanka. Many seasons ago, before the advent of the Indian Premier League, months April to June were not occupied with cricket apart from the odd tour to England and West Indies (that too, once in 4-5 years). However, the realities of modern-day cricket mean that cricketers and fans don’t get a break from non-stop cricket these days.

With no World T20 in 2018, the next big trophy that India would be competing in would be the 2019 ODI World Cup in England. As per the ICC future tours program (FTP), this is the snapshot of India’s ODI calendar before the 2019 World Cup:

Versus Location ODI Matches Tentative schedule
Sri Lanka Away 5 Jul-Aug 2017
Australia Home 5 Sep-Oct 2017
Pakistan* Home 5 Nov-Dec 2017
South Africa Away 5 Jan-Feb 2018
Sri Lanka* Home 5 Mar 2018
Asia Cup Home 4+1 (final) Jun 2018
England Away 5 Jul-Aug 2018
West Indies Home 5 Oct-Nov 2018
New Zealand Away 5 Jan-Feb 2019
Australia Home 5 Feb 2019
Zimbabwe Home 3 Mar 2019

 

According to the calendar, India has a maximum of 53 matches. However, there are several variables. The format of the Asia cup hasn’t been decided yet— it is in June when the monsoon can play havoc; worse, they may not qualify for the final. Pakistan? The lesser said about the situation the better, but other teams can be expected step in to fill the breach in the calendar. According to the BCCI’s latest announcement, the Indian home season will have 3 ODIs with New Zealand (instead of 5 against Pakistan) and 3 against Sri Lanka (down from 5 again). And, how India treats the Zimbabwe fixtures remains to be seen—as it usually plays a weakened team.

The last time India won the ODI World cup in 2011, the least experienced member in the Indian squad, Piyush Chawla, had played 22 matches—but he wasn’t one of the primary members of the squad. Above him, Virat Kohli had played 45 matches, with every other member in the squad having racked up more game time than him. This approach taking mostly experienced teams to World events has played rich dividends for India as they have reached at least the semifinals of every tournament since 2011.

Therefore, it is only fair that the players earmarked for the next World Cup be given an extended run. The players should also become comfortable with their roles and be battle hardened by the time the Indian team steps on to the English shores in 2019. The 2018 tour against a tough England side will give a good opportunity to assess their progress as well, which brings us to the thorny issue of the Indian team selection for the Sri Lankan tour and beyond.

In the Champions Trophy 2017, the Indian side did well to reach the final. However, their over-reliance on the top order came unstuck in the final where they were comprehensively beaten by an inspired Pakistani team. The tournament laid bare some of the old wounds that have been hurt the Indian team for a while now.

Over the last two years, the Indian top order has been in great health with 4 Indian top order batsmen among the top 15 of the world batting averages (minimum 500 runs). Unsurprisingly, India’s top order has averaged a whopping 59 runs per dismissal over the last two years, nearly 13 runs higher than the second placed team. The strike rate hasn’t been bad either. Meaning, the top order carried on with its business in the Champions trophy as well.

However, the story is quite different in the middle order. Though India’s average is in third place overall, 17 players have played between positions 4 and 7. Of the top 9 teams, only Sri Lanka has tried more players. And, only 3 Indian players have amassed more than 300 runs in the middle order over the last 2 years, with only Jadhav and Dhoni among the top 15 ordered by average. Not only has the top order done really well, but they have also robbed the middle order of valuable audition time.

Both Yuvraj and Dhoni are trusted old hands in the Indian team, but truth be told, there is only space for one of them in the middle order. The Indian team is one of slowest in the middle overs—meaning, the middle order has not adequately cashed in the starts the top order has provided them. Both Yuvraj and Dhoni have found strike rotation a little more difficult than usual lately, and this has hurt the Indian team. Make no mistake, on the days when they’re able to stay in for long and make up for the balls eaten up initially, they look spectacular. But, on the days they’ve not been able to convert, their recent returns on investment haven’t been up to the high standards that we have taken for granted all this while.

Both will be 37 in 2019, and the extent of depreciation of their skills is a big question mark at this stage. Back in the day, Yuvraj Singh was an electric fielder in the side but the recent banter with Zaheer Khan served as a reminder about his present state as a fielder. The World Cup 2011 may have been won on the back of the all-round exploits of Yuvraj Singh, but he’s not rolled over his arm a lot in the recent years—raising question marks on his overall value to the side.

This assumes greater significance considering the frailties that India have shown in the bowling department. The pace battery had a good showing, but Hardik Pandya cannot yet be trusted to bowl his 10 overs at this stage. Besides, the Indian spinners have struggled to stem the run flow as well. Simply put, it would serve the Indian team well to develop part-time bowlers to shoulder the load. Kedar Jadhav is only one part of an answer, and he might have had a good run with the ball over the last six months, the fact that he’s bowled only 379 balls in his List A career (which includes his 235 ODI deliveries) shows that he’s not yet the kind of part-time bowler than Sehwag, Ganguly, Tendulkar, or Yuvraj were in their bowling prime.

For his part, Dhoni has been impeccable behind the stumps and his fitness has been as good as ever. Yes, Dhoni hasn’t been able to match his usual standards but his recent record is still among the top 10 middle-order batsmen in the world currently. Besides, keeper-batsmen alternatives like Dinesh Karthik haven’t exactly taken their chances and Pant is still an unknown quantity. Given his status as an all-time ODI great, he deserves a longer rope. Simply put, in a metaphorical selection fistfight between MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh the batsman, there is no contest.  With the limited batting opportunities that Jadhav and Pandya have got, they have shown that they deserve an extended set of chances.

Considering all these factors, with a heavy heart, the Indian team has to look beyond Yuvraj Singh for the ODI challenges that lie ahead. He’s been a brilliant player for the Indian team and a bonafide all-time India great, but younger players like K L Rahul, Manish Pandey (who had a splendid run for the India A side in South Africa) and the rest lie waiting in the wings and they deserve their chance to prove themselves (or not) for the 2019 World Cup. It would also serve the Indian team well if one of the batsmen (apart from Jadhav) would work on their part-time bowling skills as well.

Disclaimer: The image used is not part of this blog. It has been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, rests with the respective owners.

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