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England’s Lower Order Muscle a Template for India to Embrace

PaajivsPunter |Cricketnext |January 25, 2019, 5:54 PM IST
England’s Lower Order Muscle a Template for India to Embrace

It was the 14th of July in 2018. The ground was Lord’s.

England faced India in the second ODI of their three-match series. A mouthwatering clash at the home of cricket between two quality teams. ICC ODI rank 1 vs ICC ODI rank 2. As marquee bilateral fixtures go, it couldn’t get bigger than this.

The England team were beaten comprehensively in the first ODI, first by the wrist spin of Kuldeep Yadav, and then by the Indian top-order blitz. England would respond impressively in the second ODI in the only way they have played ODI cricket recently—by outhitting the opposition. The English players were particularly severe on their nemesis Kuldeep Yadav, smashing him around for 68 runs in his 10 overs. In spite of losing their late middle order lieutenant Jos Buttler, with the help of unheralded all-rounder David Willey at number 8, England were able to zoom to 322 in their 50 overs.

While Joe Root was the glue that held the batting order together and overcome India’s middle overs boa constrictor squeeze, it was this late burst that gave the advantage to England. With Kohli dismissed in the 27th over with the score on 140, the wind had been knocked out of the Indian chase and it would limp to 236 all out.

Getty Images (Getty Images)

There would be no surprise if these two excellent teams meet in a fixture of massive importance exactly one year, to the day, from this match—the 2019 World Cup final, also at Lord’s. Indeed, these two have been the two outstanding ODI teams since the 2015 World Cup. India have been a consistent ODI team for almost a decade, but it is England’s transformation from ODI duds to trailblazers is indeed the more remarkable story. These two excellent teams have taken two very different paths to the summit of ODI cricket.

For almost two decades now, India has traditionally been the land of good ODI batsmen — Mohammad Azharrudin, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, and Rahul Dravid to name a few. The trend continues now with Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and MS Dhoni. However, it isn’t fair to say that India has the best ODI batting lineup in the world; that accolade belongs to England, who bat in an explosive manner all through to number 8. As it was the case with India at one point of time, England’s ODI batting strength and depth are the envy of the cricketing world.

In the last few years, the Indian batting order has developed a soft underbelly beneath that impressive top order. While the top three are class-leading, the lower middle order is very much behind the curve — and certainly behind England, the cutting edge — in this respect. If the Indian team has ambitions of making the final on 14th July, it needs to find the balm to soothe this niggling headache.

The extent of this problem can be gleaned from statistics. Over the last two years, of the lower middle order batsmen (batting positions 5-7) who have scored at least 300 runs, only two Indian batsmen feature in the list of the top 25 batsmen ordered by strike rate. Even if one were to discount the ones who have inflated figures due to playing the associate teams, this is an alarming fact.

For the record, the two aforementioned Indian players are Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya. Both these players have been good for India in terms of doing the heavy lifting in the end overs, but they have problems of their own. Hardik Pandya will only now attempt to make his way back after having sipped a very expensive cup of coffee; the diminutive Jadhav has been impressive, but he’s quite injury prone.

(Getty Images) (Getty Images)

While Dinesh Karthik and Ambati Rayudu have been drafted into the side and certainly have the capability to be busy, they haven’t traditionally played that role for their state sides. Complicating the matter is that of the veteran champion batsman, M S Dhoni. He’s no more the force that he was, which means that the added pressure of providing impetus falls on the others, as it happened in Australia. Simply put, the Indian team cannot afford to lose either Pandya or Jadhav, either to insult or injury.

The Indian team management has often fielded Ravindra Jadeja in the number 7 slot (before Vijay Shankar was given his chance) during Hardik Pandya’s absence. While Jadeja is an electrifying fielder, the same adjective cannot be used to describe his limited overs batting. His overall strike rate is ~85 and at number 7, it is worse (82.43) — hardly the kind of number that the opposition would lose sleep over. Make no mistake, he would be a world-class number 8, but with the Indian middle order presently in a state of funk, number 7 would be a step too far for a player of his limited batting abilities.

This is why the team management’s decision to not select Krunal Pandya has been puzzling. While Vijay Shankar is indeed a legitimate option, Krunal has shown better lower order chops in the IPL and domestic cricket, and has bowled some stifling finger spin to go on top of his explosive batting. His full range abilities were on display against the England Lions on Wednesday — six economical overs followed by a late overs charge, that set up the India A victory.

(Twitter) (Twitter)

With him in the team, the team can field three pacers and one wrist spinner, or if the management is feeling too adventurous, it can match England for firepower by including the Pandya brothers and extending the batting order until 8. With Bhuvaneshwar Kumar at 9, one would assume that this is a lower middle order which can go toe to toe with the best in the business.

With just the 9 matches left before the World Cup (the Zimbabwe tour to India is uncertain due to the scheduling conflicts with the IPL), India needs to check all the boxes in order to maximize their chances.

(PaajivsPunter is an anonymous collaborative blog. They've contributed opinion pieces, commentary, satire, analytical features, and long-form narratives on cricket for publications such as Wisden's The Nightwatchman, Mint, The Hindu, Sportstar, Man's World, Scroll, and Firstpost.)

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