“Are we onto something here?”

You know where you heard that? Eminent commentator Harsha Bhogle was on air when Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif rescued India from a precarious 146-5 against England in the 2002 Natwest Final, and scripted an epochal win at Lord’s.

Bhogle said it again, only this time on Twitter, as Ravindra Jadeja and MS Dhoni put on a record 116 for the seventh wicket, making an improbable victory seem probable. If Indian cricket fans were hoping for his words to work as a lucky charm, well, it wasn’t to be.

“We played bad cricket for 40 minutes. The game pretty much changed (in those 40 minutes), and when you lose three (wickets) for six (runs), it is very difficult to come back into the game. Our effort was commendable but that first spell made all the difference,” said Virat Kohli after the shocking semi-final exit.

It was the first time in ODI cricket that any side’s top-three batsmen were dismissed for 1, 1 and 1. Now, take names – Rohit Sharma, Kohli and KL Rahul – that’s a sum total of 1452 runs in this 2019 Cricket World Cup. Before this semi-final, they had accounted for 63.1 per cent of India’s total runs therein.

One way to look at this is India’s top-order dependency is their strength and the baseline of their whole ODI batting template. When the top-order fires, there is no stopping India. You don’t have to look back at the last couple years – just turn the pages of this tournament. Rohit dominated this World Cup unlike any other batsman in any other edition. Kohli was there and thereabout, dominating attacks and always promising to go one better. Shikhar Dhawan did his bit while fit, and in his absence, Rahul came up good too.

Do a little more maths here – Rohit, Kohli and Rahul accounted for 1.3 per cent of India’s 221 runs on Wednesday. See the problem? This is where the top-order dependency becomes team India’s main weakness.

What happens when Rohit or Kohli, or Dhawan (Rahul in his absence), or all of them don’t score runs? In the past two years, this strange pattern has come to the fore. 9.9 times out of 10, when that top-order fails, India struggles. 2017 Champions Trophy final against Pakistan is one example. The others are more recent – for instances against Australia and New Zealand all in this year, not counting the pre-tournament warm-up game.

Worst nightmare came true

Against New Zealand then, it was their worst nightmare come true. A span of 11 deliveries, and Indian cricket as a whole witnessed a horror show. Rohit and Rahul nicked the ball, Kohli trapped lbw – India’s batting plan was ripped apart. You can rave about Trent Boult and Matt Henry, and their usage of the new ball on a grey, murky afternoon in Manchester. Additionally, you would also do well to remember New Zealand acquiring the habit of attrition cricket in this World Cup.

It is a fact that the Black Caps – apart from Afghanistan – are the only side not to score 300 in this tournament. While it obviously reflects on their batting weakness, perhaps it didn’t put the spotlight on their good bowling performances. Only England have managed to cross 300 against their attack, while they restricted Bangladesh to 244, South Africa to 241, Australia to 243, defended 291 against West Indies and made Pakistan work hard in a 238-chase.

Is it any surprise that New Zealand defended 240 against India on a slow, tough wicket? No.

Is it any surprise that they exploited Indian batting line-up’s one weakness? No.

It is any surprise that the Indian team management didn’t solve this problem in the past two years? Yes, for this is where the focus moves on to that middle order problem.

Same old problem

Scroll.in wrote about it in the aftermath of that 2017 Champions Trophy loss, when the experiment to use the ‘experienced’ Yuvraj in the short term backfired. Then, we wrote about it a year later, and again at the end of India’s overseas schedule post the New Zealand tour in early 2019. Then, wrote again after that close shave win over Afghanistan, and the loss to England, and finally, in the build-up to this semi-final.

That’s six times this issue reared its head in two years, and there are more than thousand cricket journalists in India, often critical of this batting weakness. The point herein is simple. Those watching from the outside only posses an analytical viewpoint – if they repeatedly surmised a problem, what stopped the Indian team management, with all the resources and riches of talent available to them, from admitting this issue and indeed addressing it?

Umpteen times, this topic was brushed aside in the garb of flexibility. How is that word defined now? By sending Dinesh Karthik at number five, when in Leeds, he confessed to being given the number seven role? Or, by shielding MS Dhoni when he should have been batting higher up to anchor the chase? Or, by sidelining Kedar Jadhav, who was part of India’s two-year experimentation for this World Cup? Or, by sending out a 21-year-old who had previously played eight ODIs to bat at number four in a World Cup semi-final?

In a way, Rishabh Pant’s immature dismissal encapsulates this whole saga. His decision-making is dubious, but is he to blame for not getting enough opportunities at number four to learn the job at hand?

“The one criticism (of the selectors) is that they fiddled around with the middle order,” said former Indian skipper Sourav Ganguly on air, commenting on India’s shock exit.

He knows – refer to that aforementioned Yuvraj-Kaif partnership again. When they batted together at Lord’s, Ganguly had made sure they knew the job for some time – Yuvraj had batted at number six in 17 matches already, Kaif at number seven in 9 matches. By the time the 2003 World Cup started, Yuvraj had batted at number six in 30 ODIs, and Kaif in 17 ODIs.

Now ask, how many matches has Pant batted at number four before this? On Twitter, Yuvraj was defending him, but implicating the team management indirectly.

How many of the 12 batsmen, who batted at number four in the past 24 months, got a steady string of consecutive games, so that they could adapt to the various needs and tactics of the team if the semi final-like situation demanded? Perhaps only Ambati Rayudu, but he is sitting at home, twiddling thumbs.

All of this points to a steadfast failure to identify this middle order problem, and a reluctance to look beyond the top-order dependency. So much so, it became this Indian team’s most glaring and obvious weak point for any opposition to exploit under the right circumstances.

And New Zealand did so with aplomb on Wednesday, costing Kohli’s Men in Blue a shot at World Cup glory.