Yuvraj Singh and Michael Clarke have been the anchor for their side.
Yuvraj Singh and Michael Clarke have been the anchor for their side.


By Jamie Alter


This was tipped as a World Cup of big bats and monstrous innings, dominated by top-order behemoths. Slowly but surely, though, the middle order has made its presence felt. For the first week or so of the tournament it was largely about openers and one-downs racking up the runs, but events of the past ten days have thrown up gratifying innings from middle-order men forced to get down and dirty.


After fluently-compiled centuries from Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Andrew Strauss and Hashim Amla, it has was pleasing to see Yuvraj Singh put his head down and bail India out twice and refreshing to watch JP Duminy buckle down against Ireland on Monday and play an innings of great substance with half his side back in the hut.


It is no surprise that the World Cup’s leading run scorers are, apart from AB de Villiers, all openers or No 3 batsman. Batsmen in the top order have more deliveries to face, and on flat subcontinent tracks they have ample opportunity to cash in. Batsman like Duminy and Ross Taylor haven’t had much batting time, and when both did turn in match-winning efforts, it came when their respective teams were in some bother.


Watching batsmen in the middle- order get down and dirty and scrap for runs and then lift the tempo towards the end of an innings is in many ways more pleasing than watching an opener slam a century. To bat under pressure, when wickets have fallen and the run-rate either needs chasing or building on, is a test of a batsmen’s mental fortitude and thus Duminy and Taylor’s efforts were immensely pleasing to watch. The manner in which he paced his innings was outstanding.


In Taylor’s case, he was woeful to begin with and was dropped on zero and four. Even into the forties, as Taylor admitted after his audacious century against Pakistan, he was struggling to time the ball. That makes his late-overs assault all the more laudable.


Duminy, on the other hand, timed the ball off the middle from the time he walked in at 84 for three and didn’t show any signs of discomfort or unease as wickets fell and he build a crucial partnership with Colin Ingram. Duminy paced his innings of 99 excellently, first setting a platform and then hitting during the batting Powerplay, and it was unfortunate that he didn’t reach three figures.


A player like Duminy had critics waiting with their pens out, and many who questioned his output as a senior middle-order batsman. He had not been tested in difficult situations, was the consensus. Taylor had for too long been criticized for starting out the way he should be finishing innings, and as New Zealand’s best batsman it can be justifiably be argued that his results were not what you’d expect of a player heralded as the next Martin Crowe. Both have, for the time being, put the critics on hold.


Michael Clarke was another batsman who came into the World Cup under much scrutiny, with his place in Australia’s limited-overs squads under question. Clarke had endured a tough Australian summer, struggling through the Ashes defeat, quitting the Twenty20 side and then going into the ODIs with what seemed like half of the nation questioning his ability to score quickly. He has now scored three successive fifties in the tournament, to go with scores of 54 and 82 in the last two ODIs at home, and 73 during a World Cup warm-up against South Africa.


India have been in tough situations in successive games against Associates like Ireland and Netherlands, but were both times bailed out by Yuvraj Singh. Chasing 208 to beat Ireland, India were 100 for four before Yuvraj eschewed his flashy ways, buckled down, and saw them to victory. It was an admirable innings and testament to what he can really do when he puts his mind to it.


Against Netherlands, India’s struggles were again on show when they slipped to 99 for four, and then 139 for five, but Yuvraj re-floated the side in partnership with Mahendra Singh Dhoni and then completed the job by almost staying until the end. Yuvraj has had plenty of struggles on the limited-overs stage over the last 18 months, but his 52-run stand with Dhoni provided confidence and put India on the right track.


In the tournament, players like Duminy, Clarke, Taylor and Yuvraj’s roles have been that of middle-over anchors. They have often, of late, found themselves needing to keep the scoreboard ticking over. In Clarke’s case, that has been his primary role so that hard hitters can tee off at the death. Yuvraj hasn’t had much license to do so, apart from the game against England, while Taylor managed to incredibly change tempo against Pakistan.


But it hasn’t all been so fruitful for teams and their middle orders. In particular, it’s been disappointing to match masters of the scrap such as Paul Collingwood stagger around like a zombie during the tournament. Collingwood has been the equivalent of Michael Bevan, an expert at soaking up pressure. But in this tournament he hasn’t been able to buy a run. Such is the nature around the woeful form of Collingwood, England’s Twenty20 captain, that he batted at No 8 in the two-wicket loss to Bangladesh and since then he has been forced to make rebuttals about his own future.


Shivnarine Chanderpaul is another who has struggled for form, and his highest score was a patchy 35 when he opened the innings in Chris Gayle’s absence against Ireland. Cameron White has failed to turn up, Misbah-ul-Haq has tapered off, and Scott Styris has been decidedly off-key.


As the real leg of the World Cup starts next week, and the scenario turns into perform-or-perish, men like Duminy, Taylor, Clarke and Yuvraj may find themselves needing to reprise their roles with the stakes much, much higher.


What a time for a scrap that would be!


(Jamie Alter is a freelance cricket writer, having worked at ESPNcricinfo and All Sports Magazine. His first book, The History of World Cup Cricket, is out now. His twitter feed is @jamie_alter)