Failure To Put Middle Order In Order Cost India Dearly

Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith
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England, known to be the favourites before the World Cup began seven weeks ago, lifted the crown though the cliff-hanger of a controversy-ridden final could have gone New Zealand’s way as well. It was New Zealand-born Ben Stokes who played a huge role in England winning the decider even as his father, Gerard was cheering the Kiwis all the way from Christchurch. Ben was adjudged the man of the match in the final.

But at the end of the encounter, one was at a loss as to how the World Cup winner can be decided on the basis of boundaries hit by a team. Neither of the finalists deserved to lose, and in the fitness of things, both the teams should have been declared joint winners when the match and even the super over ended in a tie. It would have been a great advertisement for the game.

One feels a tinge of sadness for the nice bunch of Kiwis who could have been the champions. They did not have any superstar in their ranks nor are these players known for the tantrums many famous cricketers often throw around. They will now have to wait another four years to make a fresh attempt at lifting the World Cup.

As the debate on whether the boundary credited to England following an overthrow, when the ball was diverted to the ropes by the bat of a diving Stokes, was correctly given and other umpiring ‘decisions’ continues, Indian fans find it hard to digest the fact that the country’s endeavour to win was not properly backed by the powers-that-be.

The 2019 World Cup will go down in history as one when India came up with puzzling decisions. But all said and done, it would boil down to a number– FOUR.

In spite of India’s imperious march through the tournament when the team brushed aside the challenge of seven teams to top the round-robin league, the possibility of the team stumbling in the knock-out round always lurked in the background. India beat every team in the tournament except England and New Zealand, the ultimate finalists.

India had a fabulous run initially with its top three batsmen scoring the bulk of the runs. Opener Rohit Sharma, in the form of his life, hit five hundreds and top scored with 648 runs from nine matches. Skipper Virat Kohli (443 runs) was also in good nick registering half centuries at will.

The setback of losing opener Shikhar Dhawan to injury was greatly offset by Lokesh Rahul (361 runs) who came into his own in the latter games. But the success of the top order meant the middle order was without much batting time in the middle, and therefore rather rusty when they were called upon to perform.

Every time India batted, the supporters were supremely confident of a good total. And if India chased, the team was expected to get the runs no matter what the target was. The bowlers, led by Jasprit Bumrah (18 wickets) and Mohammed Shami (14) also did extremely well.

Then what went wrong in the semifinal against the Kiwis? It was a case of the flightless bird bringing down the high flying eagle to the ground with a thud.

Controversy dogged the Indians ever since the squad for the World Cup was announced. The endless debate as to who should bat at No. 4 took its toll as the selectors penciled in all rounder Vijay Shankar for the slot even as fans questioned why young Rishav Pant was overlooked. Besides, stumper Dinesh Karthik and Rahul were also chosen as batsmen who could fill in at No 4.

At last, head coach Ravi Shastri has admitted that India lacked a ‘solid’ batsman at No. 4. The question begging an answer is why the five selectors failed to locate even one batsman from the large number of worthies available for the slot? The unstable middle order was clearly India’s undoing.

No one has an answer as to why the selectors ignored the tried and tested middle order bat Ajinkya Rahane. Is there any other batsman with Rahane’s technique and level headed approach to the task at hand? He, many feel, should have fitted well at No. 4 to hold the innings together.

Another question, not asked frequently, is why a gentleman named Cheteswar Pujara is never mentioned when ODI cricket is discussed? Pujara, often criticised for slow batting, is also known to have registered blistering knocks in limited over cricket and was quoted as saying after the World Cup final that he was ready to play all formats of cricket.

Besides, it is confusing as to why the selectors closed their eyes to the existence of other batsmen like Manish Pandey, Shubman Gill and Shreyas Iyer if Ambati Rayudu did not measure up to their expectation. All three were supremely fit for the middle order with Gill being touted as the next best thing in Indian cricket.

Rayudu, after being publicly declared as India’s No. 4 in World Cup by the skipper himself was unceremoniously dumped. He was kept among the reserves for the tournament but when Vijay Shankar, chosen as the No.4 for the World Cup, was sidelined with injury, it was not Rayudu but Mayank Agrawal, an opener, who was sent to join the team in England. And Mayank is yet to make his ODI debut. Baffling indeed!

The question also now arises as to why Kedar Jadhav was in the team? Considered an all rounder, he was played in six of the matches and hit a fifty at a crucial stage in the tie against Afghanistan. Though he was known as a tricky bowler, he was hardly used by Kohli.

The team chosen to face New Zealand in the semifinal did appear imbalanced. The choice of Karthik ahead of Jadhav was not a prudent one while the omission of Shami, who claimed wickets in every match, was inexplicable.

India has a vast pool of cricketers who have the ability to topple the best on any cricket pitch, but the inability to chose the right mix has often stood in the way of success. Ravindra Jadeja had precious little to do in the tournament till he was picked and proved that he should have been played in every match. It was ‘Jaddu’ who took India close to an improbable victory in the semifinals against New Zealand.

Rohit Sharma’s exploits in this World Cup with five centuries will remain part of cricket folklore for years. Both the Mumbai batsman and his left handed partner Shikhar Dhawan have a few more years of cricket left in them.

India is slated to host the 2023 World Cup. Many of the top stars of the present team may be over the hill then. But the selectors must start grooming the talent available now. The practice of chop and change must stop and players given a long enough opportunity to find their feet.

The cupboard is not bare as several young and talented players have been sighted on the horizon. The selectors should now focus on new talent—Prithvi Shaw who has already done well in test cricket as also budding openers like Ruturaj Gaikwad, Mayank Agrawal and Priyank Panchal.

Gill is a precocious talent and must be groomed carefully as also the bunch of new ball bowlers like Khaleel Ahmed, Navdeep Saini and Avesh Khan. Stumper Sanju Samson has also enough talent to shine on the international stage.

India’s next big competition will be the T20 World Cup down under next year. But this is a format where India is placed 5th in the world with Pakistan topping the chart. The selectors have to think ahead to put together a team which can do the country proud.

 

[The writer is a senior journalist based in Bhubaneswar]

[Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily represent that of the web portal]

 

 

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