The middle order: always a bit of a riddle

What qualities does a middle-order batsman need? S. Prasanna Venkatesan spells them out.

The middle-order conundrum. Not a rarity but rather one of the recurring manifestations of an ailing team. Right from India’s tour of Australia, through the World Cup, the crack was apparent but not deep enough to cause concern. For it was masked by the jingoistic satisfaction generated by a team which had exceeded expectations by staging a surprising and remarkable turnaround to make it to the last four in the quadrennial event after the travails in the tri-series that preceded it implied that it was very well down and under, in the literal sense.

However, even as the team set about winning, the distinct feeling that something was amiss couldn’t be shaken off. It didn’t evoke the sense of totality and the unshakeable satisfaction that a complete and well-rounded unit typically does. Jadeja was performing in bits and pieces, Raina had still not grown as consistent and reliable a finisher as his inimitable skipper and it all ended up adding to the significance of the middle order, especially the No. 4 position. It was the connecting link between the dashing and the solid top order and the resourceful and industrious lower middle-order which effectively leaves the player batting at the position to have a bit of this and a bit of that. It requires a batsman to be circumspect yet free-flowing at the same time. The ability to keep the scoreboard ticking by regularly rotating the strike was vital. At times, it calls for attacking brand of cricket straightaway. Simply put, the batsman has to be dynamic for the middle order demands it.

Flair, technique and a superior form led to Ajinkya Rahane being preferred ahead of Ambati Rayudu. Though it has to be admitted that he did a fairly good job as a specialist middle-order batsman, signs of discomfiture were discernible. He couldn’t be blamed for he has predominantly played as an opener and grown accustomed to its rigours, after all. And only when Mustafizur Rahman tore into the Indian batting line-up with his sharp, incisive off-cutters last month, did it come to the forefront. Or rather Dhoni chose to highlight it. “He needs pace. We have seen that he plays a lot better when there is pace on a wicket. Whenever he has played at No. 4 or No. 5, if the wicket is slow, then he struggles to rotate the strike freely. Especially when he is just starting his innings, he has a bit of trouble. It is not easy,” is the reasoning that went into Rahane’s omission for the second ODI.

With his statement, the Indian skipper had made it clear that he was looking for someone who is street-smart in accumulating runs, and given his propensity to keep shuffling the middle order, it also meant that the candidate had to be flexible. And Rayudu seemed to be the ideal choice. His game might not be aesthetically pleasing as Rahane’s but the diminutive lad is on the ball nevertheless. To be fair to Rahane, it’s more of a case of fitting the bill rather than a judgement of talent.

The subsequent and the recently concluded series against Zimbabwe has thrown up other options too. With due respect to Zimbabwe, the performances of the Indian batsmen might not have greater significance attached to them but the fact that those runs were made on slow wickets with spongy bounce and initial seam movement adds value to them.

There couldn’t be a better demonstration of Rayudu's technique and innings-building skills than the one he showcased with his outstanding ton in the first ODI. To add more perspective, the ball was moving, causing jitters which reflected in the team losing quick wickets. Dot-balls added up to the pressure. But Rayudu held on. Resilient, he picked his scoring opportunities and worked his way to his longest innings in international cricket. His shot selection underscored his astuteness whereas his steady pacing of the innings devoid of instinctive rashness — his first 50 came off 72 balls and the next off 45 balls — was indicative of his growing maturity. A study of his evolution as a batsman in the Mumbai Indians team, for which he has batted at various positions in diverse conditions, eases any qualms concerning his flexibility. Add to it his wicket-keeping skills, and it places him slightly ahead of the other aspirants.

Kedhar Jadhav’s daring approach is tailor-made for the lower middle order. He’s adventurous and uninhibited when it comes to executing his shots. But he has to refine his technique and allow for more stability in his batting for him to increase his flexibility quotient. Nevertheless he showed ample signs of sensible batting during the course of his match-winning maiden hundred in the final ODI. Coming in at No. 6, when the team was reeling at 82 for four, Jadhav was mature enough to tone down on his aggression without entirely playing it down. He took 64 balls to bring up his 50 but needed only 22 more balls to race to his 100. He played smart cricket in that he saw off a testing phase from medium pacers Masakadza and Utseya to take on leg spinner Graeme Cremer.

Manish Pandey shot into prominence when he became the first Indian batsman to score a ton in the IPL in 2009. And it has taken him six more years to don the national colours. The intervening period, marked by the erratic nature of his performances, finally saw him emerge as a player fine-tuned to take on the demands of mainstream international cricket.

And it was a demanding situation indeed, when he came in at 68 for three, armed with the task of bailing the team out of the precarious situation it had forced itself in. He played the second fiddle in his partnership with Kedar Jadhav that fetched 144 runs for the fifth wicket and denied himself even the occasional indulgence in bold stroke-making that he has displayed in the IPL. Neither was he rattled when he was beaten by probing deliveries. Even his first boundary, a six that he hit off his 31 {+s} {+t} delivery, was a result of judicious shot selection that negated any amount of risk of getting out. By the time he finished on 71, he had made an impressive debut.