India's muddle in the middle

India's muddle in the middle

Despite injury concerns, Kedar Jadhav has produced solid performances quite consistently to all but seal his spot for the World Cup. PTI

Bon Jovi didn’t have the Indian team’s middle-order on his mind when he sang “the more things change the more they remain the same.” But he might as well have.   

The trials are over and the final rehearsals are done with and yet, there seems to be a muddle in the middle as the World Cup approaches fast. Since the 2016 five-match ODI series in Australia, India have tried 17 batsmen from numbers 4-6 but they are still to zero in on the right personnel for these positions.

From Ajinkya Rahane to Axar Patel and from Yuvraj Singh to Suresh Raina (see the table below), India have chopped and changed players at will in the last two years or so, but the end result has been an unsettled look to the middle-order. While, as team management, you don’t want to leave any stone unturned to arrive at the right combination, too much experimentation has perhaps left them with questions than answers.    

Though Virat Kohli asserted he was “pretty clear” about the condition-based playing XI for the World Cup soon after the Australia series, there is no denying that things don’t appear as concrete as the skipper would have the people watching from outside believe. It’s a different matter that Kohli doesn’t much worry about “what people on the outside think.”

While there is little problem from No 1-3, uncertainty reigns over the next three positions. Even among those who are more or less assured to travel to the United Kingdom for the showpiece event, there is still a debate over whether M S Dhoni should bat at 4 or 5; Kedar Jadhav has been more of a floater from No 5-7; Ambati Rayudu, despite the numbers backing his claim at No 4, doesn’t appear to have convinced the team management, while there is also a move to make Kohli bat at No 4. The Indian skipper has batted at that spot twice, failing both the times.

India have been lucky to have the best top three batsmen – Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli – in the 50-over format at the moment. Between the three, they have done the bulk of the scoring in the last two years, making life easier or masking the fragility of the middle-order. But in the series against Australia, one could see how the middle-order crumbles under pressure if the top three or even two of them fail to deliver.

The Indian team management has been saying that only the No. 4 is an issue for them, but the uncertainty over that position disturbs the whole middle-order as you will be forced to shift and shuffle the batsmen accordingly, leading to more chaos and confusion.

Among the 17 experimented over the last 26 months, Ajinkya Rahane, Manish Pandey, Rishabh Pant, Dinesh Karthik, Ambati Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav and Vijay Shankar showed promise of sealing those positions at various stages. Blame it on a lack of patience on the part of the team’s think tank to stick with players for any length of time or the batsmen’s own inability to seize those limited opportunities, India are left with only the last two mentioned as viable candidates for two of the three slots. While Jadhav is almost certain to board the flight to the UK barring the unforeseen, there’s uncertainty over Shankar much like the middle-order itself.