Cricket World Cup: India’s batting has laid down the marker, and teams will have to follow
Shikhar Dhawan (117) and Virat Kohli (82) helped drive India to 352/5. © AFP

LONDON: When has an Indian ODI batting lineup not been the envy of cricket teams? If there is one constant with Indian cricket over the years, it is their richness of batting. Endless names to recount, and then there is the current Indian batting core doing business at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019.

Virat Kohli is ranked No 1 in ODIs and Tests, and truly is the gold standard of batting in limited-overs cricket today. Rohit Sharma is second on ODIs and is, arguably, the best opener in the format. Hello, he has three ODI double-centuries. Shikhar Dhawan remains inconsistent, but in ICC one-day tournaments he is a beast (average 75.09) and his success with Rohit as an opening act for India has been remarkable. Add in MS Dhoni at No 5, despite all that chatter about a slowing strike-rate, and the electric Hardik Pandya at No 7, and this is a batting order capable of serious damage.

KL Rahul is still looking to cement his place, and was only recently thrust into the No 4 spot. Kedar Jadhav is finding his way back into the XI in the World Cup, of all places.

As the 2017 Champions Trophy final in England two summers ago proved, if teams can get that golden top order of Dhawan, Rohit and Kohli early – as Mohammad Amir did so stunningly back then – the Indian team can crumble.

But in two World Cup matches have underlined brilliantly the quality of this team. In Southampton, Rohit overcame a testing passage from Kagiso Rabada to steer India to a six-wicket win with 122* off 144 balls, an innings which Kohli termed the best he’s seen from the opener. Rohit didn’t entirely agree to that platitude a day before the match against Australia at Kennington Oval, but that takes nothing away from the value of his application and ability to suss out the Rose Bowl conditions and South Africa’s bowling attack.

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On Sunday, Dhawan and Rohit saw out a similarly tough ten overs from Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins and once the new-ball pair was separated, they cashed in against Nathan Coulter-Nile, Marcus Stoinis, Glenn Maxwell and Adam Zampa. Yes, Rohit was dropped on 2 by Coulter-Nile. Again, he wasn’t fluent but in making 57 off 70 balls he again absorbed the early pressure and gave India their first strong start of the World Cup: 127 in 22.3 overs.

Dhawan was made to weave and sway by Starc and Cummins, wore a couple blows on the body, but once embedded, rattled his way to a century in 95 balls. The harshest critics can say that he threw it away on 117 on a lovely batting strip, but that would be nitpicking. Dhawan’s 17th ODI century was the result of grafting out the tough part of the morning and then making merry. He now averages 64.76 in ODIs in England, and this 117 should have dispelled doubts about his ability to make a mark in this World Cup. Opposing teams have been warned, if they had thoughts that Dhawan was the weak link in India’s batting.

(FULL SCORECARD: INDIA vs AUSTRALIA, MATCH 14)

Kohli’s 82 from 77 balls was a support innings. He missed a century today – he has 42 in ODIs, remember – but that will not matter to him. He was happy playing second fiddle. How often do India cross 350 without a Kohli century?

Kohli put on 93 with Rohit, then took a back seat as Pandya hit 48 off 27 balls in a period of unadulterated hitting. Pandya’s range is fantastic, and he is the man who can make the difference of 30 runs in a flash.

Hardik Pandya ODI record
Hardik Pandya hit four fours and three sixes in his 48 off 27 balls. © AFP

Rahul and Jadhav got to bat in the last over of India’s innings. Rahul whipped his first ball for six, Jadhav didn’t face even one. Jadhav, in 41 ODI innings, has a strike-rate of 102.53. In chases, he averages 46.13 and strikes at 98.29. In successful chases, that average swells to 64.33 and the strike-rate to 103.48.

And as Dhoni proved on Sunday, he can still pull out the stops and contribute a breezy cameo.

It it this aspect of the current Indian team’s batting – the ability to be flexible and their power hitting – which Kohli singled out after the win over Australia.

“I mean, look, KL didn’t even play five, six balls in this innings and he can strike the ball as you saw he can. Kedar didn’t play a ball, and you’re talking about Hardik, MS, Kedar, KL, serious hitting ability and serious talent with the bat,” he said.

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“We’re very well equipped, and if one of the top three gets a hundred, and today all three of us got runs, then these guys become even more dangerous because they already have a platform where they can just come in and literally play like a T20 game. When that happens, you feel really good as a batting unit because that’s where these guys express themselves fully, and their skill sets come out to the max potential. These guys enjoy batting like that.

“We have a lot of depth in our batting and the ability to strike big, score strike rate 180, 200 and really take the game away from the opposition. From that point of view, I think we’re well equipped, as long as we do the job at the top, these guys will always be a factor for us.”

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The fact that Kohli, despite scoring 82 off 77 balls, didn’t need to properly shift gears speaks of the potential this Indian batting order possesses. It won’t always come of, of course, but it is that skill to have a batsman of Kohli’s calibre playing in the background while others below him tee off that makes India such a threat.

Kohli emphasised this when referencing a mid-pitch chat with Pandya during the match.

“After I crossed 50, I sort of spoke to Hardik and he said [that] I don’t necessarily need to take any chances because Hardik and MS are supposed to do that particular job. He said the fact that you are at one end gives me more assurance to play my game. So I had to take responsibility of holding it but still maintaining tempo, knocking the ball around. And then in the last five, six overs, I think I played about six balls. So I would play one ball in three overs and that was also single immediately.

“As a batsman, you can’t really get rhythm after a while. These things happen in the one-day game. As long as guys like Hardik and MS play like that, I have no problem in just doing my job and taking singles and being at one end.

“Sometimes you will get an opportunity to strike as well, and this is what we discussed as a team. If some guys are hitting at a certain strike rate, you make sure that you play a second fiddle and control the game because if you lose wickets – if we lost five wickets in that phase, you’re looking at 20 runs less maybe. I think holding wickets in hand is very important, also, and as I said, today we really batted in a very balanced way.”

Early days in the tournament, I hear you say? Yes, India have six matches to go. But in beating South Africa and Australia with ease, they have stamped their imprint on the tournament and underlined why many view them as favourites. They have the best bowling in the tournament, headlined by the No 1 bowler in ODIs, Jasprit Bumrah. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been excellent so far, and there is Mohammed Shami in the wings. Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav are proving tough to pick off, and Pandya’s more than brisk pace can, on the day, be effective.

But it is India’s batting which threatens to take them the distance.