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With the World Cup approximately nine months away, and India playing 20-odd 50-over matches in the meantime, any chance to nail down their best players in the top order and lower middle-order cannot be wasted.
Virat Kohli will slot back into this line-up and can bat wherever he wants in the top order, and is all but guaranteed to score runs, but many questions remain unanswered about India’s medium-term batting prospects. Rohit Sharma, who is warming Kohli’s throne for the moment, was candid in his assessment before the match against Hong Kong.
While conceding that the No. 3, No. 4 and No. 6 spots were up for grabs, Rohit disagreed when it was suggested that the top order was not gelling well. Rather, he said, it was a chance for someone to claim a spot with one good innings. “Yeah it is not settled, we all know about it because there's been a lot of guys who have played at that position. Going forward we want everything to be settled, but it gives opportunity to the guys to play the cricket they like and seal the spot,” said Rohit. “I wouldn't say it is a concern, but if you look at the future, as a captain or player you want your team to be settled. Nobody likes to be dropped and brought back. We want everyone to feel safe and settled, so that they can play freely.”
Safe, settled, play freely. Rohit looked at all of those things after Hong Kong invited India to bat, but one shot when he took on the left-arm spinner and went leg-side instead of off ended his innings. Shikhar Dhawan went past 4500 ODI runs in his 106th ODI, scoring his 14th century, while never looking overly dominant or masterful. But, oddly enough, when Kohli had played the same number of matches, back in 2013, he had the same number of centuries. This is not to say that Dhawan will match Kohli, but it does warn you about the dangers of assessing a batsman on statistics alone.
Let’s assume Dhawan is settled, and there’s no need for a debate on his opening partner, Rohit. Who bats at three? There is no obvious choice because this has been a musical chairs kind of position, and it is delicate because it also impacts who bats next and at No. 6.
Kohli slots in at four, Mahendra Singh Dhoni at five, but who between Ambati Rayudu, Dinesh Kartik, Manish Pandey and Kedar Jadhav fills these slots.
Rayudu is a 50-over monster in that he always scores. Any chance he gets he grabs. But he does not push the envelope in the manner that modern 50-over cricket demands. While he averages more than 50, he scores his runs at a strike rate of only 76. In years gone by that would have been cause for celebration, but Twenty20 has created an expectation that every batsman scores at least at a run-a-ball. Does the Indian team need one more dasher-slasher or can they build a line-up that has room for one consistent heavy-hitter?
Dinesh Karthik always looks like the man for the job, especially when he is fighting his way back to the Indian team, but he has been used as a floater in different positions for so long that it’s hard to tell if he even knows what sort of game he should play. Kedar Jadhav has proven he can be an explosive finisher in Twenty20 cricket, but is that the only role he can play? Manish Pandey appears to have every shot in the game and then a few, but he frustrates by not capitalising when given the chance. And then there is KL Rahul, who went from long-form player to T20 dasher, and you have to wonder where he fits into this jigsaw puzzle.
If it seems like India are spoilt for choices, this is not quite true. There is talent aplenty but not one of these players knows which spot he is auditioning for and therefore how he should play.
And what awaits them? Only Pakistan in a crunch match.
Hong Kong did not merely scare India in India’s 26-run win, they provided Rohit’s team with the kind of reality check that requires a long, hard look in the mirror and much more after.
When India plays Pakistan there will be no room for error, and even less space to say that cricket was the winner.
First Published: September 19, 2018, 11:29 AM IST