India's middle order, spin bowlers should get into the act in the knockout stage

Team India
Indian players are all smiles after defeating West Indies in the ICC World Cup match at the Old Trafford on Thursday. Photo: AP via PTI

The change in weather in England with the rain clouds giving way to bright blue skies brought a revival in the fortunes of the national cricket team in ICC World Cup 2019. The side successfully overcame a mid-tournament slump in form to top the league phase of the championship with seven victories, one loss and one game washed out. Further, the unexpected defeat of Australia at the hands of South Africa has brought New Zealand as India’s opponent in the semifinals, which augers well for the side as Kiwis have been showing indifferent form of late. Australia, who have been playing high quality cricket would take on a resurgent England in the other semifinals, as the tournament moves into its last week.

The week that went by saw India record facile wins over Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The tigers from Dhaka put up a good fight going down by only 29 runs, chasing India’s total of 314. Sri Lanka did well to recover from an early collapse that saw them boxed into a corner with four wickets down for a mere 55 runs. A brilliant innings of 113 runs by Angelo Mathews helped them to reach a respectable score of 264 runs in the allotted overs, but this proved to be chickenfeed for the Indian batting juggernaut who reached their target losing only three wickets, with more than six overs to spare. Rohit Sharma helped himself to one more 100, his fifth in this tournament, while KL Rahul scored his maiden World Cup century.

Rohit Sharma
Rohit Sharma

The matches against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka saw India making some changes in their playing eleven. Dinesh Karthik replaced Kedar Jadhav and Kuldeep Yadav was dropped to bring back Bhuvneshwar Kumar, so that three fast bowlers took the field against Bangladesh. For the game on Saturday, India brought back Kuldeep by dropping Yuzvendra Chahal while Mohammed Shami sat out to make space for Ravindra Jadeja. Thus, India ensured all players in the squad of 15 got a chance to make an appearance prior to the start of the knockout stage of the championship.

What were the results of these changes? Jadeja bowled a splendid initial spell of eight overs, picking up a wicket while conceding only 23 runs. Though his last two overs cost 17 runs, he was distinctly unlucky as Bhuvneshwar dropped a catch off Lahiru Thirumane at long on, after getting his hands to it. Karthik batted against Bangladesh but came in when the last five overs were in progress and could not make many runs. Chahal bowled within himself against Bangladesh while Kuldeep looked pedestrian on Saturday. Bhuvneshwar had a bad day on the field against Sri Lanka, leaking runs without taking any wickets, besides dropping a catch.

Yuzvendra Chahal
Yuzvendra Chahal

Thus, the team appears to be carrying certain problems into the knockout phase of the tournament, which warrant a discussion. The most critical one is the brittleness of the middle order, for which a solution is yet to emerge. The next is in the area of spin bowling where neither Kuldeep Yadav nor Yuzvendra Chahal have been able to create the impact that was expected from them. Further, India have been going into all the matches with only five bowlers, which would pose difficulties if one of them suffer a bad day and run into a batsman who is in a mood to rampage, as happened in the game against England. There is little room for error in the knockout stage and hence it is imperative that solutions to these issues are factored in while choosing the playing eleven in the remaining matches.

Rishabh Pant played a sweet knock of 40 in the tie against Bangladesh and has, for the present, reserved for himself the no: 4 slot in batting order. However, it is evident that a player of his attacking instincts is more suited to bat lower in the order, preferably at no: 6 and is forced to bat at two drop only on account of absence of better options. Further, the side has not yet come to a firm decision as to who should bat at no: 5 in the order. In both the matches that India played during the week that went by, Hardik Pandya batted in this position, which indicates that team management looks to him to bat in this slot. He did not trouble the scorers in the match against Bangladesh while, against Sri Lanka, he remained unbeaten with 7 runs when the winning shot was hit. Pandya and Pant are explosive batsmen capable of playing cameos that can turn the course of the match. Both of them are eminently suited to walk in to the crease when less than 15 overs remain and maul the tiring bowlers into abject submission. But are they the ideal batsmen one would wish to see at the crease if early wickets fall and the scoreboard reads 50 odd runs for 3 wickets? My guess is that if such a situation arises, Mahendra Singh Dhoni would be pushed up the order to no: 5, with Pandya following him at no: 6.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni
Mahendra Singh Dhoni

The top order of Indian batting has been in excellent nick, with Rohit, in particular, being in the form of his life. Both Rahul and Virat Kohli have been amongst the runs and the top three have ensured that the pressure on batsmen following them in the batting order has been minimal. However, as seen in the match against England, the worries about absence of reliable batsmen to follow them could force them to bat with more caution and restraint than required. Such an approach has the potential to adversely impact the fortunes of the side in the last-four stage.

Indian pace bowlers, led by Jasprit Bumrah, have been the stars of the show during the first phase of the championship. Opposing sides have developed a healthy respect for Bumrah, Shami and Bhuvneshwar that they prefer play out the initial 10 overs, when power play with seven fielders inside the circle exists, without attempting to take any chances. Bumrah has been consistent while bowling at the death as well with his accurate toe-crunching yorkers and complete command over line and length. Pandya has played the role of supporting pace bowler to perfection, maintaining the pressure on batsmen and taking the occasional wicket with his well-directed short- pitched stuff.

However, Indian spin bowlers have not been able to live up to the expectations that they raised prior to the commencement of the championship. Except for a beautiful spell in the match against Pakistan when he clean bowled Babar Azam with a “magic ball”, Kuldeep has appeared ordinary. It appears that opposing sides have analysed his bowling style effectively and are able to read the stuff that he going to bowl from the hand itself, rendering him innocuous. Chahal, on the other hand, does not inspire confidence that he would be able to stage a comeback once subjected to a intense round of assault as happened in the match against England. Jadeja demonstrated his abilities in no uncertain manner when given the opportunity and it would be difficult to leave him after his masterly performance in the last match in the league phase.

This brings one to the issue of who should bat at no: 7 in the order: should it be Dinesh Karthik, a pure batsman, or Ravindra Jadeja, a bowler who can effectively wield the long handle? The answer is simple and straightforward, both from past performances as well on form displayed during the tournament. Jadeja has a strike rate of 84.23 in One Day Internationals (ODIs) with 87 as the highest score, while the comparative figures for Karthik are 73.76 and 79. Further, Jadeja is also a brilliant fielder besides being a frontline left-arm spinner. It was indeed unfortunate that Sanjay Manjrekar chose to make light of his achievements by calling him as a “bits and pieces” cricketer. One would guess that it is the inability of team management to accurately judge his potential and capacity to contribute towards the cause of the side that has seen Jadeja sit on the benches more often during the last couple of years.

If Jadeja’s abilities as an all-rounder are recognised by placing him at no: 7 in the batting order, it would be a toss up between Kuldeep and Chahal for the last slot. Here Kuldeep would get the nod as he does not always spin the ball from the leg stump to the off when a right-hander is batting, like Jadeja and Chahal. He would deserve a place in the eleven solely for the variety he would bring into the attack as well as his ability to bowl the occasional unplayable delivery.

Hardik Pandya
Hardik Pandya

The presence of Pandya and Jadeja in the field, besides the three pace bowlers and Kuldeep would also give the skipper the luxury of having six bowlers at his disposal. This would serve to allay fears of any bowler having an off day during the critical knockout phase, besides giving more variety to the attack.

Hence the suggested batting order for the games in knockout phase would be:

KL Rahul

Rohit Sharma

Virat Kohli

Rishabh Pant

Hardik Pandya

MS Dhoni

Ravindra Jadeja

Bhuvneshwar Kumar

Mohammed Shami

Jasprit Bumrah

Kuldeep Yadav.

PS: My parrot tells me that England would triumph over Aussies to meet India in the finals. I have told the bird to keep quiet regarding the finals as my head and heart want India to win!!!