India look to plug middle-order holes against wounded West Indies

The middle-order continues to look vulnerable

by Abhishek Mukherjee

As in 2012-13, the Test series against the West Indies was expected to be one-sided. That duly happened (with a dash of Prithvi Shaw thrown in), and subsequently the specialists went back to the rigours of domestic cricket. Now, India and West Indies gear up for a five-match limited-overs leg of the tour with less than a year to go for the World Cup in England.

The Indian bowling unit – complete with an all-round pace attack and two world-class wrist-spinners – is probably the finest in contemporary cricket. Virat Kohli had drawn flak a year ago by axing his senior spinners for Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, but the investment has paid dividends. Never has a pair of spinners won an ODI series in South Africa the way Chahal and Kuldeep did earlier this year.

The pair, combined with Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, men as potent with the new ball as with the old, has been significantly responsible for India’s rise through the ranks in 50-over cricket. Bumrah and Kuldeep occupy the first and third places on the ICC rankings respectively, while Chahal is at the 11th spot.

With both Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah rested (and Hardik Pandya injured), the reserves – Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, and young Khaleel Ahmed – have a chance to fight for one, or perhaps two, permanent places in the ODI squad. There is, however, little chance of them making it to the eleven, as Pandya will return once fit.

Axar Patel’s injury had propelled Ravindra Jadeja back in contention during the Asia Cup; Jadeja isn’t likely to let go of that easily. Like the reserve pacers, Jadeja will sit out of the eleven once everyone is back, what with two spinners already in place and Pandya a certainty.

The batting cuts a sorry figure despite the incredibly consistent top three. The middle-order continues to look vulnerable. India did win the Asia Cup without Kohli, but not before stuttering and hiccoughing against Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

A comparison between the top three and next three in the batting line-ups over the past year may provide a clearer picture:

Batting in ODIs (from October 1, 2017)
Pos. India Australia England South Africa New Zealand Pakistan
Ave SR Ave SR Ave SR Ave SR Ave SR Ave SR
1-3 68 97 41 96 47 104 40 94 34 83 50 85
4-6 26 75 28 86 37 92 29 96 44 93 28 78
Diff 42 22 13 10 10 12 11 -2 -10 -10 22 7

As is evident, the Indian top three have done significantly better than their counterparts across the world (their top three average 68, a whopping 18 clear of the rest). On the other hand, the middle-order has done worse (average 26, strike rate 75) than the same set.

Despite delivering off and on, the middle-order is far from settled, especially on those rare occasions when the top three has caved in. Ambati Rayudu, KL Rahul, and Manish Pandey (and the now-injured Kedar Jadhav) have all risen to the challenge now and then, but none of them has managed to secure a permanent spot.

If anything, Jadhav’s selection has to do with the fact that he can send down a few overs too. As late as till the 2011 World Cup, Indian elevens typically consisted of at least two batsmen who could bowl. As things stand now, almost none of them do. If a bowler has an off day (worse, if he breaks down – Pandya’s injury against Bangladesh is not even a month old), Kohli will be left with little choice.

Shaw’s omission from the limited-overs side seems to be counterintuitive, for several reasons: he might have batted at four; given his ability to accelerate, he could have been used in the end-overs; he has been in ominous touch of late; there is ample time to groom him during the build-up to the World Cup, and given his immense potential, it would have been an excellent long-term investment.

Shaw dazzled with a 44-ball 61 against Hyderabad in the semi-final of the ongoing Vijay Hazare Trophy. A similar performance in the final against Delhi – a day before the first ODI – may earn him a place in the squad for last three ODIs.

However, the biggest worrying factor in the middle-order is MS Dhoni, whose place in the XI can no longer be taken for granted. A gradual decay in form, combined with the steady rise of Rishabh Pant, has put the great man’s place in jeopardy.

With the top three delivering consistently, the middle-order may not be exposed on what are likely to be placid tracks, especially against West Indies, who don’t boast of the strongest of attacks.

As the financial tussles between the board and the big guns continue, the West Indian selectors keep unearthing new faces. They often end up with fresh-faced sides, eager to be shepherded by seniors who aren’t there.

The current West Indies squad of 15 includes 12 cricketers in their twenties. This includes captain Jason Holder (who, at 26, is among the seniors of the side), Sunil Ambris and Keemo Paul (who have played 7 ODIs between them) and the uncapped Fabian Allen, Chandrapaul Hemraj, and Oshane Thomas.

Of course, both Thomas and Hemraj are exciting talents. Thomas, 21, bowls in the high 140s, and possesses a scorching yorker. He took a wicket in every single match of this year’s Caribbean Premier League. Hemraj, on the other hand, is coming off an 80-ball 103 not out against West Indies B after picking up 2 for 28 with his left-arm spin earlier in the day.

A lot will be expected of the ubiquitous Marlon Samuels, whose 903 runs against India in India have come at 45 and a strike rate of 87. Only three men have scored more against India at their den in the 21st century. This, however, will be as difficult a tour as any other, and Samuels will have to pull off a near-miracle in the company of Shai Hope and the explosive Evin Lewis.

All in all, India should claim the ODIs without breaking a sweat. Unfortunately, that will also mean their middle-order will hardly be tested, and the old problem will persist.