NEW DELHI: “Dhoni finishes off in style. A magnificent strike into the crowd. India lift the World Cup after 28 years," exclaimed Ravi Shastri on air in 2011. Eight years on, as India embark on another one-day international (ODI) World Cup campaign, Shastri is on the other side as the team manager and Dhoni’s presence in the squad is not as certain as it was then. Further, though most of the 15-member squad has picked itself, a handful of selections have posed two immediate questions and a third larger question.
The two immediate questions: is the Indian middle-order brittle, especially for lively English conditions? And are the controversial drawn from performance or are they simply inspired choices? But before that there is third, larger question: how does this Indian World Cup squad compare with those that preceded it?
A useful prism of data to answer this is the ICC ODI Championship Rankings. Its algorithm is weighted towards current form, and it also factors in batting strike rate, bowling economy rate, match conditions, quality of opposition and match result. It is also available historically, and we have compared its data for the current Indian squad with the last five squads, beginning 1999, the last time the World Cup was held in England.
On paper, this squad competes well against the other five and even lays claim to being a standout. The average ranking of the top 5 Indian batsmen from the squad is 13. Both the 2011 and 2015 squads had a better average ranking, of 8 and 11, respectively. However, a crucial difference between these squads is in distribution.
The five Indian batsmen in 2011 were bunched up, occupying ranks 3 to 12. Among the five Indian batsmen in 2019, two are ranked 1 and 2 in the world (Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma). And then there’s a margin to the rest: Shikhar Dhawan at 13, Dhoni at 21 and Kedar Jadhav at 26. This margin is fuelling the debate over the middle-order composition and thinking.
Batting has always been India’s strong suit. India has boasted a batsman in the top 5 going into every World Cup since 1999. None of these has been as dominating and consistent as Kohli, who averages a staggering 59.57 in one-day internationals and has a rating of 890 (out of a maximum of 1,000). The closest any Indian has come to it before a World Cup was Sachin Tendulkar in 1999, with a rating of 820 and a rank of two.
On the bowling side, on rankings and ratings, this squad is better than all before. The average ranking of the top four Indian bowlers is 8 and their mean rating is 691 points—both the highest among the six squads. Pace bowler Jasprit Bumrah is ranked one, spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal are 7 and 8, respectively, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar is ranked 15.
Since 1999, India has never gone into a World Cup with a single pace bowler inside the top 10, or even more than one bowler inside the top 10. Against the average 2019 ranking of 8, the next best is 16, from 2003 in South Africa (when India reached the finals) and 2007 in West Indies (when it crashed out in the group stages). Interestingly, the weakest bowling unit on paper was the 2011 one, when India won.
This also shows historical performance is one thing and current performance another. This question will be examined carefully in the context of the Indian middle-order, where India has three batsmen who aren’t true specialists: Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik and Vijay Shankar. Chances are, two will be in the playing eleven at a time.
The middle-order search has been long and winding. Post the 2015 World Cup, excluding all-rounders like Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja, India has played 18 batsmen in the middle-order. Ten played five innings or less. One of them is in the World Cup squad: Shankar, who averages 33 at a strike rate of 96.
Shankar is an aggressive choice. Among the 10 batsmen who have batted at least five innings, he is near the bottom on both outings and averages. Ambati Rayudu has the highest average (53) at a strike rate of 80, and he’s not been picked. Neither has Ajinkya Rahane, who averages 42 at a strike rate of 80.
What goes against Rayudu is the big drop in average when batting against ‘SENA’ teams, an acronym for four top teams, namely South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia. KL Rahul is the other player who sees a large drop.
But Rahul is in the squad, as is Shankar. Rayudu isn’t. It’s a call based on what might be rather than what has been. How it plays out will be interesting to watch.
Harsh Gupta works at howindialives.com,a database and search engine for public data