World Cup 2019: India pays the price for constant middle-order experimentation
India’s World Cup hopes were over on Wednesday as they fell 18 runs short off New Zealand’s target. The major reason behind the loss was the top-order meltdown. With India reduced to 5-3 and both Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli gone, their pursuit of 240 runs looked difficult. Though Ravindra Jadeja’s scintillating and effervescent counter-punch gave hope, it was too late.
The top-order wobble reminded fans of Champions Trophy 2017 final, where also India lost top 3 within first 10 overs and then suffered a middle-order collapse.
This is perhaps the best top-order India have had in one-day cricket for a while. They perform consistently across all conditions. If one of the top three clicks they are right in the game, if not then they are in a deep hole.
For that, India never had a contingency plan. Even going into semi-finals they were unsure of who number 4 and 5 should be. Rishabh Pant and Dinesh Karthik, who eventually batted at these two spots respectively, were never given enough chances at these spots before the start of the tournament.
Let us go back to Champions Trophy. There, Yuvraj Singh batted at number 4 but clearly, he was past his prime. Then India tried Manish Pandey at that spot but team management kept reshuffling his spot in the batting order. On the South African, tour Ajinkya Rahane was given this position but after 6 innings he was shown door. Last year in England, on the back of KL Rahul scoring a century in T20I series, he was drafted in at the same spot but two games later Dinesh Karthik was batting there.
Come Asia Cup, Ambati Rayudu was selected for that spot. He seemed to have booked it for World Cup but with his form fading just before World Cup, Kohli and Co. picked Vijay Shankar – with the experience of a handful of matches – for this role.
Eventually, KL Rahul started the World Cup at this position but later had to move up to open the innings as Shikhar Dhawan was ruled out due to injury. Vijay Shankar unconvincingly batted there for two games before a toe injury ruled him out and a young Rishabh Pant, who was never prepared for this role, was chosen.
In the semi-final, he got out playing a rash shot but do keep in mind that he neither had the experience nor enough preparation to fill this void. Even in the last series before the World Cup against Australia, India tried as many as three players at number 4 in just 5 matches.
Also, India's decision to drop Kedar Jadhav for the latter half of the tournament was a weird one. Going into the tournament he was India's designated finisher (along with Hardik Pandya) and also provided a sixth bowling option. He also scored a crucial fifty against Afghanistan in the league phase thereby helping India post a challenging total. India dropped him against Bangladesh and never went back to him. They chose Dinesh Karthik who was not even in India's squad in the aforementioned Australia series.
India used as many as 4 players for both number 4 and 5 spots. Though one or two changes were required due to injury, others were due to lack of clarity in the team's mind.
Had India given some youngster like Shreyas Iyer, Shubman Gill, and Nitish Rana a longer rope, this situation might have never arisen and India would have had enough batting firepower beyond the top 3. Now, questions will be raised over faulty planning and lack of intent to give one of the younger players a chance to seal the spot.
Under overcast conditions and on a two-paced surface, 240 was always going to be a tricky chase. The first 10 overs were going to be crucial and India lost the game there. Champions Trophy 2017 showed India the glitches in their batting order but they were unable to solve it in two years and became the first team to crash out of the knockout phase of the World Cup.