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By Chetan Narula
Hamilton: Jan 21, 2014
Handed a shock defeat in the opening match, world No 1 India would look to plug their batting loopholes when they square off against a gutsy New Zealand in the second One-Day International (ODI) in Hamilton on January 22.
Chasing a formidable 293 in the opening game in Napier, India seemed on track for a comfortable win before a middle-order collapse gutted them against the world No 8 home team.
What lay exposed was India’s over-reliance on a certain Virat Kohli, left standing tall amid ruins with a sparkling hundred. But Suresh Raina’s form has been a big concern, while the two openers Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have not given India the flourishing start expected of them.
Also, India’s bowling will have to be a lot sharper in the coming matches given that the home batsmen negotiated the visiting attack without much difficulty in the series-opener.
With pacer Ishant Sharma and off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin not making much of an impression in overseas conditions, it remains to be seen whether the team management will consider making changes to the bowling line-up.
At Seddon Park on Wednesday, the visitors would be hoping for an encore from Kohli and better contributions from others in the line-up.
It is no secret that the team’s fortunes are heavily dependent on Kohli’s bat. His hundred the other day was his 18th overall in just 126 matches, with another 28 fifties to boot.
It is important to note that out of the 46 times he has scored a half-century or more, India finished victorious in 32 matches.
Furthermore, in 24 games out of this small set, the team batted second and Kohli’s affinity for run-chases is only too well known. He scored his 12th hundred in an ODI chase on Sunday, 11 of which in the past have resulted in victories.
The worrying bit in these statistics is that 14 of those 32 victories — inclusive of nine hundreds by Kohli — for India have come in the last two years, while the rest 18 were recorded in his first four years of playing ODI cricket since he made his debut in August 2008.
This highlights the ever-increasing dependency of the batting line-up on Kohli and with just one year to go for the ICC World Cup 2015 in Australia and New Zealand, that is a worrisome thought.
Perhaps, it starts at the top of the order. Rohit’s scores in the three ODIs in South Africa and New Zealand so far have been 18, 19 and three.
Dhawan’s scores in the same matches have been 12, zero and 32. Their best partnership during this time is 15 runs, put up in Napier, while together they scored 14 and 10 in Johannesburg and Durban. India have lost all three matches.
Compare this with their brilliant run last year until the West Indies series at home when they put up 1,247 runs in 22 matches at an average of 59.38 helping the team win on 16 instances.
The most famous ones were in the ICC Champions Trophy 2013 in England when they scored 127, 101, 58, 77 and 19 in five matches.
Clearly they have the ability to score good runs despite conditions favouring bowlers, just that they have been out-of-touch of late.
That it has happened at the same time for both of them heaps the onus on Kohli and in turn puts greater pressure on the middle-order.
This is where the problem gets compounded since the No 4 and No 5 batsmen haven’t really contributed much to the Indian cause.
Captain MS Dhoni was vocal about this aspect after defeat in the first ODI on this tour, blaming the middle-order for “inconsistency” and affecting the lower middle-order’s ability to chase down targets.
The team’s think-tank has experimented with quite a few names for the middle-order in 2013, especially these two slots at No 4 and No 5, with Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Dinesh Karthik, Ambati Rayudu, Ajinkya Rahane, Murali Vijay, Kohli and Dhoni himself having batted there.
The first five names have featured most regularly in the middle-order (Vijay batted lower down for the injured Dhoni in West Indies) and from among them the highest individual score contributed throughout 2013 was 89 not out by Raina against England way back in January 2013.
Since then, his form has deteriorated for the worse with only 770 runs in 34 matches at an average of 35.
Karthik (255 runs in 15 matches at 31.87) was dropped after some ordinary outings in West Indies and Zimbabwe, and Yuvraj (276 runs in 18 matches at 19.71) struggled on either side of the Champions Trophy, failing in his two comebacks within one calendar year.
These three batsmen have been the major culprits for a poor showing by the middle-order, with Rahane (113 runs at 18.83) and Rayudu (101 runs at 50.50) have only had a limited-run so far.
For a long time, the Indian team management has been worrying about its bowling resources in the limited-overs format.
But the harsh reality at present is that they need to focus on finding batsmen who can contribute to the team’s cause, particularly while playing overseas considering the World Cup is in 12 months’ time.
Any concerns, whether about the spinners or the fast bowling combination, can wait until then as without sorting out his team’s traditional strength, batting, Dhoni will not be able to plan ahead.
Meanwhile, for Brendon McCullum, there are fewer worries having taken an early lead in the series. If at all, they need only to focus on not taking the visitors lightly, who, on paper at least, are a much stronger unit than the hosts.
The more pressing concern is about replacing 21-year-old fast bowler Adam Milne in the playing XI after he was sidelined from the rest of the series with a torn abdominal muscle.
While 26-year-old medium pacer Hamish Bennett has taken his place in the squad, Kyle Mills is expected to play instead.
Hamilton has witnessed consistent rain for the two days leading up to this second ODI and pitch curator Andrew Brown believed that “the under-cover pitch will have something in it for the bowlers.”
He was also of the opinion that should the rain stay away tomorrow, there is every chance that batsmen will make merry, much like the last ODI played here wherein West Indies scored 363/4 in fifty overs.
Team India will be hoping for the latter, both from the weather and its much vaunted batsmen.
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