Red-hot India march on, but batting frailties persist
It's been 34 matches in the World Cup and we're yet to see a Virat Kohli hundred. (AFP Image)

MANCHESTER: Between the toss and Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul walking out to bat, in the press conference room of the Old Trafford, two journalists were involved in an animated discussion predicting India’s total batting first against the West Indies. The realistic of the two placed a 20 bet and backed India to score 300, while the more ambitious had hopes of a 400-plus total.

“400? Are you kidding me,” exclaimed the more reality-driven guy. For India to score they’ll need Rohit Sharma to score a double-hundred, or the middle-order has to fire, which hasn’t happened in a long time. For both scenarios, you need a vulnerable bowling line-up, which West Indies don’t.” ALSO READ: India knock out West Indies to remain unbeaten

The bet was on and the game underway.

Around about the 30-over mark, the two journalists crossed each other again. India were 140 for 4, following another lack of contribution from No. 4 and No. 5. Vijay Shankar and Kedar Jadhav had departed in quick succession, while their skipper Virat Kohli was batting on 50 and above. These were shades of the Afghanistan game and the possibility of another low total was lurking.

“This is why India will never score 400, at least not in the World Cup,” the same journalist said out loud. “As long as the middle order doesn’t strike a balance, even 300 is questionable. But hey, let’s call it even. We both got it wrong.” ALSO READ: We always back Dhoni, he has won so many games Kohli

As fun as it was to eavesdrop on the conversation, you couldn’t help but ponder over how true the point raised was. India’s lack of balance at No 4, 5 and 6 is not new, and on Thursday it almost landed the side in trouble again. Almost, because India were aided by MS Dhoni‘s resurgence and Hardik Pandya‘s ability to almost everytime offer India a late push in the lower order.

But that doesn’t take away the fact that India’s bowlers nullified a middling batting performance to inflict a crushing 125-run defeat on West Indies. As good as Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah were with their crippling spells, they couldn’t mask the little concerns plaguing India’s much talked-about middle order.

Rotating strike against spinners has been a bit of a concern for MS Dhoni for quite a while now. (AFP Image)

As significant an improvement it was as compared to Edgbaston against Afghanistan, India are yet to perfect their middle order. Against West Indies they were better, but that would be considered viewing the glass half-full. They did well against a side whose graph has dipped since a strong beginning. How India’s middle order fares against an attack like England or an Australia, that might as well be considered as glass half-empty.

Factor this. Between overs 1 to 10, India were cautious to reach 47/1, and add another 50 in the next 10 without losing any wicket. Just the start they needed. This has been a fruitful approach from India’s openers as they see off the initial testing period before taking off. Follow the pattern against Australia, South Africa, even against New Zealand during the five-ODI series earlier this year. There’s nothing wrong in this methodical approach. But what transpires thereafter is what concerns Kohli and India.

Between overs 21 and 30 51 runs and three wickets lost. This included Rahul, Shankar and Jadhav returning. It would be rude to point out Jadhav because of his half-century against India saved India the blushes, but Rahul and Shankar, not so much.

In all three innings, Rahul has got starts. As an opener, getting the first 20-30 runs are believed to be the toughest. From there it eases on. With Rahul though, things seem to be the opposite. His initial proceedings look smooth, silken, well thought. It’s once Rahul crosses the initial hurdles, is where his shot selection gets the better of him. Against Afghanistan, on a sluggish surface, it was the reverse sweep and in Manchester, attempting two shots in one swing.

The drive from Rahul was on. He had played handsome flick earlier off Jason Holder, but set on 48, Rahul attempted a drive and a flick, almost at the same time, the face of the batting turning towards midwicket, leaving a gap between bat and pat. Just like that, another start wasted.

The player replacing him is Shankar, who walks out to bat at No 4, the most debatable spot in the line-up. A position for which Dinesh Karthik, Ambati Rayudu, Dhoni, Pandya and Rahul have been tried out over the last eight-odd months, and if we are to look back even further, the list stretches to almost 12 options in 24 months. Shankar is someone the team seems to be grooming as their patent No. 4, for at least the next one year. In two games at No. 4, Shankar has 29 and 14, falling to weak shots.

That said, judging on the basis of two innings is unfair. People before him have received far more chances. But at the Old Trafford, with his skipper Kohli set, a loose drive off a half-volley away from the body is not the kind of stroke you’d hope from him. It was evident from Kohli’s shake of the head just how unimpressed Kohli was with Shankar’s dismissal, more so with his shot selection.

Clamours for Rishabh Pant’s inclusion are growing, but is it fair to drop Vijay Shankar from No. 4 after just two innings? (AFP Image)

For some reason, there has been a meltdown in Twitter regarding India leaving out Rishabh Pant. Mark Waugh and Michael Vaughan described it blasphemous and baffling. Pant is young, talented, even the future of India behind the wickets. But keeping in mind his mode of dismissals in whatever little international games Pant has played, how well would he have fared on a surface as slow as the one in Southampton or as two-paced as Manchester?

As for Kohli. Well, when was the last time we saw him getting four half-centuries in a row and not converting even one into a hundred? Rarely. He has now gone seven innings without a century. For any other batsman, it’s no big deal, but for the best in the world shepherding a fickle middle order, maybe a little. It is the longest Kohli has gone without a century since July 2017. Not very Kohli-esque.

At 180 for 5, Dhoni revived himself from the infamous slow innings in the previous game and his partnership of 70 off 60 with Pandya lifted India. But here’s the thing. West Indies will still allow India to get away after being five down inside 200. England and Australia won’t. Just the last game, England’s bowlers reduced Australia from 173 for 1 to 259 for 7. Even at Old Trafford, when India surged, West Indies’ two best bowlers Kemar Roach and Holder had bowled out. Unlike West Indies though, England, Australia have more than just two match-winning bowlers to rely on.

On a good day against India, those teams can make score can read a lot worse. In ODIs, the general template is to build till 35 overs. India, in the previous two games have instead had to re-build. Not every game will Kohli score, will Dhoni and lower order bail the team out of trouble, will bowlers be able to defend totals that are actually chaseable. Such has been Pandya’s touch that he’ll give you a quickfire knock eight out of ten times. With no Ravindra Jadeja, who do India bank on those two such occasions when Pandya doesn’t?

Even Dhoni, for all his reinventions and evolution, his struggles to rotate strike against spinners is alarming, and teams are aware of it. A trait which was once Dhoni’s strength, is bogging him down. In India’s every practice session before a match this World Cup, Dhoni has invariably spent considerable amount of time in the nets facing spinners. In the last leg of his career, even the great Dhoni can only do so much.

The surfaces in England are not going to bet easier to bat on. With just 14 matches remaining, matches will be played on pitches which have been used twice, even thrice. India, with 11 points are sitting comfortable at the top half of the table and within striking distance of a semi-final berth. In the 2015 World Cup, they were unbeaten before having a bad game against Australia in the semis. In the Champions Trophy too, India had an off game against Pakistan in the final.

And if India are to avoid a third such instance, they’ll need to find a quick fix to their middle-order quandary.