Virat Kohli chose to bat first against Afghanistan on what he thought would be a batting beauty on a sunny morning in Southampton. But it was a moist, sticky wicket much like the one on which South Africa batted first against India and scored only 227 for 9.
To Kohli’s credit, he was quick to assess the wicket when he came out and played in the V, unlike K.L. Rahul and Vijay Shankar, who fell to sweep shots after getting set. He was going along nicely at a run-a-ball 67, until he made an uncharacteristic slash off off-spinner Mohammad Nabi.
The cause of his dismissal was his partner M.S. Dhoni as much as Nabi. Dhoni was stuck at the other end, and the Indian captain felt the pressure to accelerate. It’s not the first time a well-set Kohli has fallen in a premature switch to power hitting to cover for Dhoni.
Kohli’s dismissal in the 31st over exposed India’s Achilles heel. Dhoni could barely rotate the strike, with spinners operating from both ends. These days he finds it easier to work the ball from pacers. He can hit a spinner for a six, but got stumped in his first attempt to do so in the 45th over.
By then, India had dug themselves into a hole, scoring at just 4 an over between the Kohli and Dhoni dismissals. Kedar Jadhav is a good player of spin, but now takes Dhoni’s lead in taking the game deep with risk-free batting. This only works if somebody can accelerate big time at the end.
Hardik Pandya came out with too little time to build an innings, and failed to make up for the slow middle overs. Jadhav did his best, but he’s no power hitter. India could only make 224 and even that was thanks to the Afghan captain not using the full quota of overs from his spinners.
The middle order problem is nothing new. More than half of India’s ODI runs in the past couple of years have come from the top three of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli. Number four batsman Ajinkya Rahane’s loss of form set off a search for a replacement last year.
Ambati Rayudu seemed to be the man after a good IPL. But after investing heavily in him for months, the Indian think tank noticed that his strike rate was below 80 and his technique in pace-friendly conditions dubious. They jumped at Shankar after seeing a few good hits from him.
Strangely, Rishabh Pant didn’t get a look-in despite Test centuries in England and Australia, a Test average of 49.7 and IPL fireworks. He didn’t figure in two ODI series in Australia and New Zealand, despite a 159 not out in the Sydney Test.
He’s now in the World Cup squad as a replacement for the injured Dhawan, but warming the benches because India prefer the “three-dimensional" Shankar. Pant’s strike rate, especially against spinners, makes him an ideal foil for anchors like Dhoni, but it’s yet to be tested.
Rahul’s form in the IPL and a World Cup warm-up game, coupled with his track record as a strokemaker, got him into the No.4 slot ahead of Shankar. But Dhawan’s injury and Rahul’s promotion as opener brought Shankar to the hot seat, where he got 29 in 41 balls against Afghanistan.
No. 4 is usually reserved for a team’s best batsman. Shankar is yet to make a 50 in his 11 ODIs. So he’s been thrust into the slot more in hope than out of conviction.
India want him in the team because he provides a cushion for Pandya’s bowling quota. But the middle order is a much bigger issue than the fifth bowler.
Pakistan tried bits-and-pieces players before bringing Haris Sohail into the middle order. His 89 in 59 balls powered Pakistan to 308 against South Africa. India need somebody like that who can then allow Dhoni to “take the game deep" with singles.
For Shankar to be that man, he will have to do what he has never done in his young career, which is to get big runs at a good clip. Or will India go with Pant, who has done it in Tests and the IPL?
India need to find the answer soon to give themselves the best chance of exploiting their considerable talent to win the World Cup.
Sumit Chakraberty is the author of 2019 Cricket World Cup Thinking Cap.