Time is ticking for India to solve their combination puzzle for 2019 World Cup
When was the last time that the Indian team had a stable and reliable middle order?
Yes, it was so long ago that most people will not even remember. But if you really dig deep into the thought and dial back the years and major tournaments, it was way back in the glorious 2011 World Cup campaign where India had a steady middle order with the likes of Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni coming in at number 4, 5 and 6 respectively.
But since then, the Indian team have tried an unusually long list of combinations and players but nothing has worked for a significant amount of time.
This list includes the likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, KL Rahul, Dinesh Kartik, Shreyas Iyer. Even Yuvraj Singh was called back in 2017 in hopes of reviving his glory days, but it didn’t work for long. Hardik Pandya was also given a go at number 4 after that, but he also was obviously not well suited for the job.
The most recent addition in this list has been Ambati Rayudu, who was has been given a shot after a stellar 2018 IPL season, where he played a significant role in CSK’s winning run, scoring more than 600 runs.
But unlike others, he has grabbed this opportunity with both hands and is undoubtedly the prime candidate right now for the number 4 slate in the 2019 World Cup squad with his recent performances in the home series against the Windies.
Although, many might still argue that these performances have come against a very inexperienced and young bowling attack, and in the comfort of their own, favourable conditions.
And all these middle order woes in the last 6 years or so have often led to in forcing the captain and the team management to make some trade-offs in the bowling line up.
In recent years, more often than not, India have taken the field with only 4 proper bowlers, playing various bowling and batting all-rounders in order to increase their batting depth.
But this made matters even worse for them as they often found themselves wanting in the bowling department, with the batting still failing to deliver the goods once the top 3 got dismissed.
This led to loads of changes and head scratching for the team, but in the last couple of years, they seemed to have found an optimal solution for the problem – Hardik Pandya.
Hardik Pandya gave the Indian team a fast bowling all-rounder that they were looking for years and years.
His bowling has improved significantly since his debut, leading to his inclusion in all three formats of the game and he has always been a force to reckon with, with the bat.
But this problem will only remain solved if he is fully fit for the 2019 World Cup and will remain at a 100% for its duration.
And if not, India will find itself in another tricky situation of trade-offs, with just 3 realistic options.
The first option for them will be to play Ravindra Jadeja in place of Pandya, leading them to play with 3 specialist spin options with Jadhav being the fourth. This combination will be highly improbable in, even though flat, but still English conditions.
The second option will be to play a proper fast bowler as the fifth bowling option. But this could be a very risky option as that could lead to even more pressure and responsibility on the top 3 than they already have.
The final, and according to me, the most viable option will be to play 3 proper fast bowlers and replace Yuzvendra Chahal for Ravindra Jadeja, keeping a nice balance in all departments. But this option also comes at a risk of them being vulnerable in both batting and bowling, given the conditions in England.
All these combinations will be under the radar in their upcoming tour of Australia and New Zealand, where India will play 8 of their remaining 13 ODIs before the 2019 World Cup and it will be their only exposure to foreign conditions before the big event.
So, it will be extremely crucial for them to keep the same playing 11 in most of those 8 matches, if possible, and not experiment too much.
This will lead to a great exposure for Ambati Rayudu, playing against some of the best fast bowlers in their own backyard under different circumstances and situations. This will fully determine if he is indeed the right man for the job going into the World Cup and will instil great confidence in him if he performs to the team's expectations.
It will also be very important for India to play the same bowling combination in most of these matches, depending upon the fitness of Hardik Pandya, in order to know which works best in foreign conditions.
So, all in all, the Indian Team should be able to find an optimal combination in the next 3 months for the 2019 World Cup.
But if they fail to find probable solutions for all these problems in the next 8 ODIs and keep up with their chopping and changing with every second match, the selection committee and the team management might have to delay their course of action till after the performances of various players in the 2019 Indian Premier League.
And that could well be the worst possible situation that the Indian team could find themselves in before the biggest event in the sport.