Yuvraj Singh. Manish Pandey. Ajinkya Rahane. Suresh Raina. Ambati Rayudu. Shreyas Iyer. All these batsmen were tried and dropped as India sought to address their middle-order woes in the lead-up to the 2019 Cricket World Cup.
For the last 3 years, India had dominated teams the world over. Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli were on fire. India’s top 3 batsmen turned into an unstoppable force.
And in Jasprit Bumrah, they found a pacer who would go on to become the world’s best in ODIs. And along the way, they found two wrist-spinners who would bamboozle batsmen with their guile and variations. But one major problem kept Indian cricket on tenterhooks.
The middle-order. Who would bat at No.4? Who would bat at No.5? Who would finish games for India? Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina were formidable in their prime but India soon realised they were no more the players they once were.
Virat Kohli believed Rahane could be a good option in England but surprisingly, he did not even get a look-in after the South Africa tour in eary 2018.
Months before the World Cup, the Indian team management decided Vijay Shankar could be a great asset in the middle-order. Called in as a like-for-like replacement for Hardik Pandya who was banned for his controversial comments on Koffee with Karan, Shankar was touted as a viable middle-order batsman because he could also offer a few overs of medium pace.
In List A cricket, Vijay Shankar has an average of 36.32. In the Indian domestic set-up, there are many more batsmen with much better averages. Yet, the Indian team decided to go in with Vijay Shankar who had only debuted in January, months before the World Cup.
Before the World Cup began, Vijay Shankar had played a grand total of 9 ODIs with a best of 46. He played only 3 matches in the tournament before being ruled out with a toe injury. At no point during the World Cup, did he look like he could solve India’s middle-order puzzle?
Rishabh Pant, a promising batsman undoubtedly, was called in as a replacement for opener Shikhar Dhawan. Pant is a wicketkeeper-batsman, is only 20 and had played only 5 matches before the World Cup. To his credit, Pant showed character with scores of 32, 48 and 32 in 3 out of 4 innings in the tournament.
All these decisions were surprising but not enough questions were raised. Going into the World Cup, India did not groom their middle-order. A handful of games was never going to be enough.
The middle-order conundrum was years in the making. There were players who had made an impact: Manish Pandey and Ajinkya Rahane were deemed solid players but they were inexplicably discarded.
QUESTIONS FOR RAVI SHASTRI
Ravi Shastri took over as coach in 2017 after Anil Kumble stepped down because of a rift with Virat Kohli. Shastri had enough time to plug the hole in that middle-order and call the shots. What were his inputs on the several middle-order options India tried out?
What was Shastri’s role in deciding MS Dhoni’s batting order? What was Shastri’s role in helping batsmen tackle with overcast conditions which aided swing? What has so far been Ravi Shastri’s role in the Indian team?
Ravi Shastri was team director in 2015 when India stormed into the World Cup semi-finals and lost to Australia. He was the popular choice after Kumble resigned in 2017. Both captain and coach have often spoken openly of their admiration for each other. Yet, there were gaps in team selection and tactics.
MS Dhoni was sent in at No.7 when he clearly was no longer the finisher he once used to be. Dinesh Karthik who had batted only once throughout the World Cup, walked in at No.5 with the team tottering at 5 for 3. It was mayhem in the first half of the Indian innings before Ravindra Jadeja played the innings of his life to give India a glimmer of hope.
Former India captain Sourav Ganguly was livid to see Dhoni sitting in the pavilion when India had lost their top run-scorers in the tournament. Ganguly wondered why Shastri wasn’t more proactive in deciding the line-up.
“When your captain is out on the field, you expect your vice-captain, you expect your coach. But you have got to be proactive,” Ganguly said during his commentary stint when asked if Shastri would be empowered to change the batting order while the captain was out in the middle.
Yes, India had a terrific campaign in the lead-up the semis but familiar problems did them in. Like in Dharamsala, like in England before, like in Hamilton, India were undone by the swing. Like in the Champions Trophy final, once India lost Kohli and Rohit, the rest of the middle-order failed (barring Hardik Pandya in the Champions Trophy and Jadeja and Dhoni in the World Cup semi-final).
India went to play a World Cup without ironing out their flaws, hoping Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli would carry them through. Well, Dhawan was ruled out with an injury, Rohit Sharma did everything he could with 5 hundreds and Virat Kohli, though not at his best, scored 448 runs. But the rest of the puzzles remained unsolved.
Ravi Shastri as coach has a lot of questions to answer.
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