After losing a crunch World Cup match against Australia at Lord’s, Eoin Morgan was asked about the absence of Jason Roy. Without blinking, the England skipper replied how the opener’s absence affected their game plan completely, with rotation of strike gaining importance over slam-bang at the top of their order.
It was a staggering statement. This is an English line-up, which, in the last four years, changed how One-Day International batting is perceived. And yet they were so dependent on one batsman to provide those quick-fire starts, that his absence had a direct bearing in their failed chases against Sri Lanka and Australia. At least Morgan was honest, as far as admissions go, and underlined where the problem lay with his batting order.
India are not honest with themselves, at least not in the public eye. They are missing Shikhar Dhawan more than they would care to admit, and their continuous fiddling with number four/middle order is hurting them hard. Nobody is coming out to say it out loud in press conferences either.
Of course, a run of five wins helped brush these shortcoming under the carpet. Try as they may, though, India cannot hide this glaring weakness any longer after that unbeaten run came to an end at Edgbaston on Sunday.
At this juncture, just track back both the English and Indian innings.
Roy and Jonny Bairstow gave a rousing start to England and made it count on the flatbed deck. Even when they lost a couple of quick wickets, and only scored 43 runs in overs 31-40, the home team never really lost sight of the grand design – putting nearly 350 on the board. Yes, it is a one-trick plan for England, and yes, they have struggled due it in the recent past.
Too much pressure
Now, compare the Indian innings. Rahul departed early. Then, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli started off slow, with the score reading 27-1 after 10 overs. It was a different sight than you usually witness in a tall chase. There is always an element of risk involved in playing out the first powerplay – you simply have to make the most of a bunched-up field.
Sharma and Kohli didn’t go for it, at all. Clearly, they wanted to build a base, and bring India’s ODI template into the picture. The top-order bats deep, and then the middle order goes for it. What of the asking rate? Is it possible there was a fear factor involved, as the duo was eating up too many deliveries as the run-rate crept past 8/over?
“It is important that the guy who is in form bats as long as possible. That was between Virat and me. We wanted to make that partnership big, because we knew the longer we bat, the closer we’ll get to the target. So we took our time (batting slow initially),” said Sharma, after his third World Cup hundred went in vain.
His words underline the key factor in India’s batting struggles. Dhawan is no longer around – it means one leg of the tripod that scored nearly 55 per cent of India’s ODI runs in the last two years is gone. Does it put more burden on Sharma and Kohli? Yes, undoubtedly.
Thing is, they deliver, time and again. Sharma took his time, but as always, Kohli batted on a different pitch. Slowly, the former recovered and the latter was in his template-groove. Runs started flowing, the tempo started building. Kohli’s powerful wrists came into play. He caressed one through mid-on, and then through cover. Sharma smacked three fours in an over – class, power, timing et al.
These two had to bat, and bat deep, so deep, perhaps bringing down the asking rate to run-a-ball for the last ten overs. Maybe 80 off 60 balls, or even 90 runs, and then they could rely on the middle order to cross the finish line. They delivered a dream stand, and the only method for India to win. It was also an illusion because in a tall chase of 340-odd, you cannot simply rely on two batsmen to do the bull work.
“We had a decent chance when they (Pant and Hardik Pandya) were in, to strike a few and get closer to the target, triggering panic in their dressing room. We kept losing wickets and that doesn’t help in a big chase,” lamented Kohli, after the loss.
Instability in the middle-order
Unlike England, India’s struggles aren’t just embedded at the top. There is an inherent, deep-rooted instability in the middle-order. Combined with the merry-go-round at number four, does it add to the pressure on Sharma-Kohli, thus book-ending India’s two best batsmen, cramping them for breathing space? You bet.
Rahul is inconsistent. Sharma-Kohli share the responsibility to bat deep and score high every innings, with the middle order only doing the finishing job – this constitutes plan A. What is plan B?
Shankar or Pant is an on-going saga, and neither has done enough to end this debate. Dhoni does what Dhoni does, and Jadhav’s utility as a full-time batsman, when he is not bowling, is still unclear. Look at the bench – Dinesh Karthik, who has also been inconsistent in the last couple years’ experimentation. Barring Pandya, this Indian line-up doesn’t have a reliable power-hitting batsman.
Building an ODI innings is much like shifting gears. If the top-order does well, then there is a smooth upward shift and you accelerate like a horse bolting out. If there is a loss of wickets, you downshift, rebuild and then attempt an accelerating patchwork. The underlying point being India’s gearbox has a problem. If all goes well, the upshift happens at the requisite point. If not, well, the gears get stuck, stalling the engine.
Thrice in three matches then, the same names have come unstuck, stalling India’s batting engine. “Every team will have one or two or three unsettled players. That is what it is,” shrugged the vice-captain.
Indeed, nothing can be done about this predicament at such a late stage – it is what it is. And barring a Sharma-Kohli miracle, it will probably cost India the World Cup.