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Improved Middle Order Returns Give India World Cup Comfort

Rohit Sankar |Cricketnext | Updated: March 16, 2019, 9:16 AM IST
Improved Middle Order Returns Give India World Cup Comfort

Image: AFP

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The dress rehearsals are over and after several tweaks and final touches over the last few months, the Indian team has completed its final ODI before the World Cup in England two months later. There are unanswered questions with the last series before the big event presenting a loss at home to an Australian side they had ambushed only a few months ago.

But history tells us that India had lost their final series’ before the 2003 and 2011 World Cups too and still went on to put in strong performances ending as runners up and champions in those two editions. While the debates rage on about the selection of the final 15, an interesting phase of play since the Asia Cup last year has seen India solve at least some of their middle-order woes.

The consistency of the top three had gone up at the same pace at which the middle-order performances were receding and the period post the World Cup has seen India struggle with a soft belly which has often let them down.

India’s continued backing of MS Dhoni, despite his faltering strike rate and waning finishing abilities, attracted criticism but it did not take into account the new role that India had for Dhoni – a collapse arrester who could soak pressure and act as the sponge to dirty linen in the lower middle-order. When the top three failed, Dhoni looked to step up. It didn’t work always but like every world-beating side, India had a plan B. Dhoni was India’s plan B, one who may not squeeze into any plan A they make, but would be the first name on the plan B sheet.

After the Asia Cup, India have been needing more and more of Dhoni and his middle-order troops with the supposedly infallible top-order showing a few cracks. The period between the Champions Trophy and the Asia Cup had seen the top three reach incredible levels of consistency with the average score at which the second wicket fell crossing the 100-run mark. Post the Asia Cup, though, that has dropped to 68. Dhawan, who recently scored a ton at Mohali to end his barren run, has been particularly underwhelming in this period, with his average dropping into the low 20s until the hundred the other day took it past the 30-mark.

fallofwickets

As can be seen from this chart, the soaring skylines in the first half (after Champions Trophy 2017 till the end of Asia Cup) are replaced by a string of low bars in the second (after Asia Cup) with only two double hundred scores at the loss of the second wicket boosting the overall average.

This has meant the middle-order, which was considered unreliable, has been more in action in the past two years. Exposing the middle-order and analyzing how they fared in strife was perhaps India’s pre-World Cup preparation agenda and it worked in the period post the Asia Cup. But contrary to what was expected, the middle-order coped and performed better than it was given credit for.

The averages of the top three and middle-order (4-6 positions) were miles apart in the period post the Champions Trophy till the end of Asia Cup. The top-order racked up runs for fun in this period as it was seen in an average of 63.9. In complete contrast was the middle-order, which was in shambles. An unimpressive average of 33.9 was backed up by a strike rate straight from the 1980s – 79.2. A combination of the two meant that if the top three were separated, the belly would be exposed and surrender without a fight.

middleorder

However, the period since the Asia Cup has seen this notion being dispelled. While the consistency of the top three meant the belly was less exposed in the first half of 2018, the second half and the starting of 2019 has seen them come into play more.

This period, however, brought refreshing hope for India with the usually unreliable middle-order stepping up and putting in compelling performances. This is evident in the marked change in the average and strike rate of the belly post the Asia Cup. While the top-order averages have dropped – they still remain on top of the world in this period – but the more crucial story for India is their middle-order whose performances have soared and nearly matched the top three.

An average of 43.6 is backed up by a strike rate in the late 80s. There have also been signals of some sort of revival of the fighting spirit of the middle order.

As the Champions Trophy final showed, over reliance on a handful of players can be devastating in the knockout phase of tournaments and this resurgence by the middle-order is a welcome development for the team.

It has been heralded by a spirited showing from the individuals who have been manning the belly for India. The chart below shows the positive change in the average of middle-order batsmen in the period since the Asia Cup.

*It is to be noted that the likes of Rayudu, Pant and Vijay Shankar have zero values in the first phase for they either did not figure in the team or did not play in the middle-order batting positions (4-7 in the batting order).

middleorder_avg

Dhoni and Jadhav, the mainstays in the middle-order in the period after the Champions Trophy, have seen their average go up by 5 and 20.5 respectively while Rayudu and Vijay Shankar have impressed with good performances of late. The likes of Pandya and Karthik have seen their averages drop while Pant hasn’t quite put in enough performances to assure a place in the World Cup squad.

The conundrum surrounding the two keepers – Pant and Karthik – could well be the solitary spot up for debate in the World Cup squad. Both haven’t put in convincing numbers but Karthik has impressed in mini cameos and could well pip Pant for the final spot.

Strike rate is perhaps almost as crucial as average in contemporary ODI cricket and the middle-order has quite clearly made progress in this area too.

middleorder_SR

The likes of Vijay Shankar and Pant have effectively been striking at pretty positive rates while Rayudu’s strike rate, despite being in the range of 85, has been a point of concern. Dhoni has soared too, with his strike rate increasing by 4.7 while Karthik (+26.3) has been a revelation down the order. This factor alone should make him a strong contender for the World Cup squad as he has been a finisher of sorts for India in the shorter formats.

Jadhav, like he showed in Delhi, does not lack in fighting spirit. His average, strike rate and an unusual bowling action should see him act as the balancing bridge in this Indian ODI line-up. The return of Hardik Pandya will bolster the middle-order strike rates and lend more balance to the side but it’s worth noting that they (the middle-order) has impressed even without his services.

The series loss against Australia could hurt but there could just be a silver lining here – the way the series panned out may have actually helped India sort out some of their selection issues and seal those final spots for the World Cup.

Going by the performances of Vijay, Jadhav and Dhoni of late, India’s middle-order has shown the potential to come good when most required. How consistent they are in this endeavour could define how well India do at the World Cup.
First Published: March 15, 2019, 12:57 PM IST
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