Cricket World Cup 2019: Injuries and brittle middle order threaten to undo India ahead of semi-finals
India's middle order has been shaky, which raises questions ahead of the semis. © AFP

BIRMINGHAM:The truth is out there,” as The X-Files used to promise. And the truth is, India‘s selections for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 have become trickier with each passing injury and that they have a middle order which is waiting to be properly exposed. 

Losing Shikhar Dhawan with a hairline fracture of the thumb is a massive blow that has been masked over somewhat by Rohit Sharma‘s strong World Cup. Losing Bhuvneshwar Kumar for three matches has not hurt India because Mohammed Shami has stepped up with 13 wickets. Losing Vijay Shankar does not look like it will hurt the team because his returns have been slim. But with each passing game, the cracks in this Indian cricket team’s middle order have grown wider.

Despite losing to England here in Birmingham on Sunday, Virat Kohli‘s team is on track for a top-two finish. At second place on the World Cup table with 11 points, they need one win to make it to the semi-finals. Lost to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, however, and India will be on a flight home.

(READ: Selection issues overshadow India’s semi-final march, Bangladesh look to stay alive)

Nobody is panicking, because this is a strong team. But you get the sense that if Rohit and Kohli have an off day and that brittle middle order is penetrated – meaning that neither MS Dhoni or Kedar Jadhav manage another dour innings and Hardik Pandya can’t fire – there is a disaster waiting to happen.

And herein lies the issue of misfortune and muddled selection.

Originally picked in India’s World Cup squad to bat at No 4, taking the place of Ambati Rayudu who for months had been prepped for that role only to be dumped for the tournament, Shankar managed scores of 15*, 29 and 14 in his three chances in England. Not once did he look the part. The toe injury sustained in Southampton last week kept him out of India’s first loss of the World Cup at Edgbaston on Sunday, and the next day the BCCI announced that Shankar will play no further part in the tournament.

(READ: MS Dhoni comes under fire for ‘lack of intent’ during run chase against England)

Shankar was picked for his all-round skills, and has been replaced by a batsman. A day before he was ruled out, Rohit reiterated that the Indian team management had no uncertainty about Shankar at No 4. Then Sanjay Bangar, the batting coach, backed Rishabh Pant to keep going at No 4.

Rishabh Pant World Cup
On World Cup debut, Rishabh Pant scored 32 off 29 balls. © AFP

Pant, added to India’s World Cup squad recently once Dhawan was ruled out, leapfrogged the man picked in the original 15-man squad, Dinesh Karthik, and batted at No 4 in the loss to England. Pant looked uneasy during his 32 against England against some disciplined bowling, and nearly ran himself out twice in his first three balls faced. He lost the bat too, and though he scored at over a run-a-ball, he was far from convincing. Come India’s final match against Sri Lanka in Leeds on July 6, it may not be Pant who bats at No 4.

Mayank Agarwal has been confirmed as Shankar’s replacement, but will not link up with India’s World Cup squad until after this match in Birmingham. He could slot in for the match against Sri Lanka later this week, if the management shunts KL Rahul back to No 4 and gets the uncapped Karnataka batsman to open.

(READ: Waqar Younis questions Indian team’s sportsmanship after loss against England)

Rahul has not been wholly convincing in his latest avatar in an India limited-overs jersey, which has been the major issue with him in ODIs. Not getting a regular batting spot is something Rahul spoke of as problematic during last year’s Asia Cup. He’s opened on 11 occasions and batted at one-down twice; he’s four chances at No 4 and one each at fifth and sixth position.

In the World Cup, Rahul batted at No 4 against South Africa and scored 26 off 42 balls. Against Australia at The Oval, he got his chance at No 6 and hit 11 not out from three balls. When Dhawan got injured, Rahul was promoted to open. Scores of 57, 30, 48 and 0 ensued. Rahul will open again versus Bangladesh at Edgbaston, but come the Sri Lanka match at Headingley he could be back to No 4, if not dropped if he fails on Tuesday.

Rahul was off the field for 30 overs on Sunday after hurting his back while attempting a catch, and when he batted he looked stiff. Rahul made a nine-ball duck, and while there has been no word from the Indian camp that he is in doubt for the Bangladesh match, if he should get injured their World Cup campaign will be hit further.

Dhawan’s injury upset the apple cart, of course. The Shankar experiment at No 4 failed. Pant has got one match, and while you cannot judge him on that basis alone there has been little in his scattered ODI innings to suggest he fits that role just yet. Many view Karthik as a better option in the middle order, but he has not gotten a chance at the World Cup. Rahul is yet to convince as an ODI batsman. Agarwal has not played an ODI.

Dhoni has scored runs, but his sluggish strike-rate has attracted criticism. Jadhav has one vital half-century against Afghanistan, and three unbeaten innings when overs were few. In one match, he didn’t face a ball. You cannot fault him.

You cannot win a World Cup on the basis of runs from Kohli and Rohit, respectively ranked first and second in ODIs. India’s middle order will have to deliver.

Ravindra Jadeja World Cup 2019
Ravindra Jadeja is primed to get his first match of the 2019 World Cup. © AFP

And now to the bowling, which shapes as the defining chapter on this dry Edgbaston surface for Tuesday’s match – the same as the one on which India lost to England. It is slow and low, and on a used pitch India could bring in a third spinner in Ravindra Jadeja. Getting the right team selection has never been trickier for India in this World Cup, as they seek to confirm their semi-final passage against a very confident Bangladesh team.

Playing Jadeja would lift India’s fielding and strengthen the lower order, but who will go out? You could be tempted to call out Yuzvendra Chahal, considering he conceded his most expensive figures in ODIs – and the worst by an Indian in a World Cup game – in the loss to England, but what message would that send to one of India’s frontline spinners?

Dropping Jadhav would be an extreme call, for it weakens the batting further. A utility allrounder, Jadhav has not been called on regularly to fling in his side-arm offspinners, and his batting has not been what it is capable of. On the comeback from injury, this has been a muddled campaign for Jadhav but even so, dropping him would be harsh.

Bhuvneshwar is fit for selection, but may have to sit out another match as India ponder a third spinner on this dry Edgbaston surface.

As with their first match of the World Cup, India’s selections remain the focal point. What will Tuesday at Edgbaston bring?