India have started the World Cup in the best possible way, with comprehensive victories in their first two matches against South Africa and Australia, but Shikhar Dhawan being ruled out due to injury is a major blow to the two-time champions.
Dhawan’s match-winning century against the Aussies was important to India in more ways than one. Not only did it bolster the left-hander’s confidence, but it also lent a great amount of stability to the batting order. A lot has been spoken about India’s world-class top three, and Dhawan’s return to form was a big cushion for the relatively unstable middle order.
However, just as India were starting to look like the team to beat, they find themselves facing a serious hurdle. In the game against Australia on Sunday, Dhawan was struck on his left thumb by a Pat Cummins delivery that shot up more than it should have. He looked in pain instantly, called out the physio, but eventually decided to carry on batting.
From that point on, till he was dismissed for a masterful 117 off 109, Dhawan batted with visible discomfort. He often took his bottom hand off while playing his shots but powered on nonetheless. The fact that he didn’t come on to field later on proved the extent of his injury.
Now, with reports coming in that he has a fracture in his thumb and will be sidelined for about three weeks, or even for the entirety of the tournament, India are left with some big decisions to make.
Dhawan’s exit is set to have a spiral effect on the 1983 and 2011 champions. Firstly, they will be left without the services of one of the best openers in the world. The Delhi-born cricketer has sensational figures in multinational tournaments. Among Indian openers, he has the most number of centuries in ICC events [World Cups and Champions Trophies].
Secondly, Dhawan’s absence will also take away one half of arguably the most dangerous opening combination in white-ball cricket. Both he and Rohit Sharma are in fine form at the moment, having scored a century each in India’s first two games. Over the years, they may not have managed a consistent run in Tests but there’s no denying their achievement in One-Day Internationals. Dhawan and Sharma’s partnership is tied second on the all-time list of most hundred-plus stands by openers in ODIs.
Their left-hand-right-hand combination has played a huge role in many Indian victories in recent years. In Sunday’s match against Australia itself, Dhawan and Sharma ran Mitchell Starc and Co ragged with their quick singles and controlled aggression. Opening is, perhaps, the most specialised role in the batting order. With Dhawan missing out, not only will India miss out on a high-class batsman, it could also affect Sharma’s rhythm. After stepping out on the field with the same person for so long, right-hander will surely take a while to get used to the ebb and flow of his new partner.
Lastly, India will have to once again sort out their batting order. After a game of musical chairs for the No. 4 slot over the past year, they finally found a solid candidate in KL Rahul. But the right-hander will in all-likely be promoted up the order to open with Sharma. This leaves the team management with a question they weren’t hoping to answer anytime soon – who should walk out to bat after captain Virat Kohli?
The obvious weakness in India’s squad for the World Cup is the lack of one more pure batsman. Vijay Shankar made the cut as an additional seam-bowling all-rounder and Dinesh Karthik was included as a back-up wicketkeeper. As things stand, with Dhawan definitely unavailable for the next two matches, one of these two is likely to be included in the XI for the game against New Zealand on Thursday.
While announcing India’s squad for the World Cup a couple of months ago, chief selector MSK Prasad had said that Shankar was the first choice for No. 4. That strategy was, of course, discarded after the 28-year-old injured himself during a practice session before the start of the tournament and Rahul made the most of the opportunity by hammering a ton against Bangladesh in the warm-up game.
Going by Prasad’s words, though, it’s only natural for Shankar to take the No. 4 position now. He’s fit at the moment and is rated highly by many. But is he really the best India has to offer for such a crucial role? A batsman walking in at two-down is expected to do more than play cameos. He needs to do some heavy-lifting with the bat and score hundreds. Does Shankar have the ability to do that on a consistent basis?
The other option is Karthik, who – in the twilight of his career – has made a name for himself as a big-hitter. However, just like Shankar, the 34-year-old doesn’t inspire much confidence as far as the all-important No. 4 position is concerned. The wicketkeeper-batsman is a good man to have around for a late blitzkrieg, but expecting more than that from him is a risk.
India could consider slotting Karthik lower down the order and promoting either Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav or Hardik Pandya. But that would put additional pressure on the top three. The first two matches saw the Indian batting-order face little discomfort, but that was also due to the fact that the pitches were flat. Going forward, if there are conditions like the one during the warm-up game against New Zealand at The Oval, where the top-order was blown away by Trent Boult, India could pay a heavy price for gambling in the middle-order.
The last option is, of course, to bring in a new face altogether. There’s a strong chance that India will fly in a replacement for Dhawan if the opener is ruled out completely. The front-runners for that ticket to England are Rishabh Pant and Ambati Rayudu, with Shreyas Iyer having a slim chance as well. However, none of these three have played any competitive cricket since the end of the Indian Premier League. The risk of fast-tracking any of them to the playing XI cannot be overstated.
At the end, whichever way they go, India face a far-from-ideal scenario. They’ve lost the only left-hander they had in the squad.