World Cup 2019: Top stable, middle topsy-turvy

India’s batting reigns supreme but its under-cooked middle-order needs a spark. Hopefully it will acquire energy soon.

Lokesh Rahul and Rohit Sharma know how to launch an innings in an effective manner.   -  AFP

Cricket’s ancient batting template of opening with a defensive bat and a circumspect approach followed by middle-order consolidation and exuberance, has long been altered both in Tests and limited overs cricket. The buccaneers of change were a bunch of men, who could shred the leather off the red cherry or the white ball, and these were openers who were more contemporary than classical.

Even in Tests, where the accent is still on the slow start and a yearning for a no-loss scorecard on the first day’s lunch, the pirates of destruction have found their ways to sprinkle adrenaline on the turf and do a tap-dance on the 22 yards.

It could be a sacrilege for the connoisseurs but players like the great West Indian Gordon Greenidge; maverick Indians K. Srikkanth and Virender Sehwag; and Aussie Michael Slater, to name a few from the longer format, believed in the simple motto of ‘see ball, hit ball’.

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And a strange thing happened in ODIs where batting tumult is a natural thanks to having abridged overs and where quick runs are as essential as two-minute noodles and instant coffee for the harried working professionals at bustling offices.

The shorter version helped the above mentioned batting marauders to flourish and it also encouraged men who were middle-order stalwarts or lower-order bulwarks to fancy themselves having a biff atop the batting tree.

Australian wicket-keeper Adam Gilchrist loved wearing his yellow shade and making merry right from the first delivery he faced as an opener in ODIs. And, at home, we had Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly forging a sensational combine right on top. None of their shots, however, had a woodcutter’s veneer, as they coated willow violence with their overwhelming sense of aesthetics. It was abuse of the bowler’s rights but camouflaged in the lyrical notes of poetry.

Shikhar Dhawan, before he got injured, dazzled as an opener. And Virat Kohli, at number three, is at home on any surface and against any type of attack.   -  K. R. Deepak

 

Now that we have established the ODI norm, which is a marked departure from Tests, and one that privileges an opener to be both Alexander and Don Quixote, either attacking with confidence or swinging more in hope, it is time to look at the next incremental step. So once the openers have set a frenetic base with the field largely drawn in, the middle-order is expected to build on that foundation before exploding at the death with the slog-order scatter being the preordained climax.

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It is a fine evolution where velocity glides from the sixth gear to auto-pilot and everyone is happy in the batting dressing room, spilling their tea and doing exaggerated high fives. Cut to the present where England, frosty to cricket and warm towards football, is hosting the current ICC World Cup, and then the tale differs a wee-bit especially with the Men in Blue.

Yes, the top-order is on fire and Rohit Sharma has stacked up hundreds like a famished man gobbling up bun-maskas at quaint Irani joints with their red-checked table cloths at Colaba in Mumbai. His fellow opener, be it Shikhar Dhawan or now K. L. Rahul, has clicked too. And at number three is Virat Kohli, who bats at such an exalted plane that the nature of the pitch or the ambitions of a bowler, hardly matter.

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It is no surprise that a quality troika has set exalting standards, deflating both speedsters and spinners. At the time of going to the press, Rohit (647), Kohli (442), K. L. Rahul (360) and Dhawan (125 from just two games before a broken thumb forced him to return home), have contributed in bulk. But the worry is after the openers and one-drop batsman ticked all their boxes and granted a good space for the team to flex its batting muscle, what we have got is a middling flexing of biceps.

We could argue that with the top-trio being in such prolific form and occupying more overs and mounting a major share of the total, it is inevitable that whatever follows from that dizzying high would seem as a let-down. Yet, there is no dismissing the fact that India has slowed down in the last stages of its innings.

Hardik Pandya (194, 139.56 strike rate) has done his bit, though, he could score more but there is a churn around him. Vijay Shankar left with a fractured toe, Rishabh Pant, despite the inherent promise, is feeling his way and Dinesh Karthik, having made a comeback is understandably tentative.

Hardik Pandya has been giving thumbs up performances, but Mahendra Singh Dhoni, these days, requires some time to play himself in, even in limited-over cricket.   -  AFP

 

The big daddy among them, one Mr. M. S. Dhoni, who just turned 38, has been rusty, again this is said in relative terms while juxtaposing his marauding past. The former Indian captain has aggregated 223 averaging 44.60 and striking at 93.30 and still, the lingering after-taste is of excessive defence, a series of dot-balls and the long-patented long-handle suddenly turning coy at the finish line.

Athletes age, their muscle-memory slackens, but their inner-belief drives them on. When a Dhoni tries to shepherd Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the last over, refuses singles off the first two deliveries because in his mind, a six is just around the corner, surely a sense of delusion creeps in. It is not that Dhoni cannot hoist into the stands but the frequency has come down over the years. And reverting to the first part of this paragraph, he got out with a miscued hoick to the third ball!

Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly forged a sensational combine right on top. And they did it with proper cricket strokes.   -  Getty Images

This Dhoni-version mirrors more Rahul Dravid than the essential aggressive core burnished in the bylanes of Ranchi. The twilight is drawing close and may be he could be slotted in at four because Dhoni needs that time to bed himself in before freeing his arm.

India has progressed well so far in the World Cup and by the time you read this, there could be either ecstasy or agony as the knock-outs are upon us. Whatever be the outcome, Kohli and his think tank have to find a way to ensure the disjointed bits in the batting line-up acquire a seamless air in the months to come.

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Hopefully Pant will become a finished product but besides Pandya, India needs another dispenser of sixes, a Carlos Brathwaite clone. The West Indian coming in as part of the tail, showed what he can almost do, ushering in miracles, like in that contest against New Zealand. He may have failed but the frenzy he brings to the crease is something that all teams aspire to have.

India’s batting reigns supreme but its undercooked middle order needs a spark. Hopefully it will acquire energy soon. Remember that point in the past when there was a Dhoni in his prime and a Yuvraj Singh firing those splendid sixes over mid-wicket! Delicious isn’t it? It is time for more and a fresh crop has to emerge and fill up some massive shoes.