World Cup 2019: The invisible middle order, India's obvious weakness
The major concern for team India heading into the World Cup 2019 and throughout the campaign was the middle order and that is exactly what was exposed during the semi-finals against New Zealand at Old Trafford.
Throughout the tournament, the likes of Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, and Virat Kohli put on big scores and ensured India were clinical and won matches with ease. But the day the top three did not perform, India lost and unfortunately it was the World Cup semi-final.
Many tagged India along with England as the favorites to win the tournament and rightly so. However, there was one weakness present and New Zealand managed to expose that in an all-important semi-final.
The likes of Manish Pandey, Ambati Rayudu, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Shreyas Iyer, Vijay Shankar, Rishabh Pant and more have been tried but failed to cement the No.4 spot and with Dhoni not at his best, India's middle-order always looked fragile.
When you have one of the best bowling lineups in the world, you can try and hide weaknesses in the batting order. But this was a risk which did not pay off for India.
We saw the Champions trophy final two years ago, where the top three Indian batsmen were dismissed cheaply against Pakistan and India eventually lost the game. It was deja vu in the semi-final against New Zealand with Henry ripping into India's top order with a sensational spell of fast bowling.
You could blame Rohit, Rahul, and Kohli for not stepping up in a big game, but when you are chasing a low score on a tricky pitch you need your middle order to put their hand up and see the match through.
Jadeja played a blinder of a knock but with not much batting to come it was always going to be an uphill battle. If someone at number four or five played the same innings, then India would have surely crossed the line.
Hardik Pandya and Rishab Pant were steadying the ship after the early storm but a lack of concentration, immaturity, and inexperience led them to play loose shots and throw their wickets away.
While the top order was deceived by excellent bowling, the middle order batsmen threw their wickets away with rash shots and that is not acceptable in a semi-final. Shot selection was poor especially from Pant and Pandya, they were consolidating well and were slowly bringing India back in the game until a rush of blood got the better of them.
Dhoni is a legend of Indian cricket but unfortunately, he was a shadow of himself this World Cup. His partnership with Jadeja was crucial and credit to him for staying at the crease, but at the same time if he managed to sneak in a couple of boundaries and rotate the strike consistently, it would have taken the pressure off Jadeja.
Too many times this World Cup we saw Dhoni come in, slow down proceedings by consuming dot balls which put pressure on the other batsmen who eventually gave in and were dismissed trying to up the ante from the other end.
Yes, Dhoni's experience is invaluable and he helped Kohli tremendously in terms of field placements and bowling changes but if he notched up his strike rate it would have made a world of difference for team India.
Yes, the middle order was under pressure in this semi-final as India lost four early wickets and they had to try and consolidate, but once you are set you have to take your team through, something both Pandya and Pant need to learn.
Even if you analyze India's loss to England, both Rohit and Kohli had one big partnership but after they were dismissed the middle order couldn't see them home. So it's not just the semi-final which was an issue, you can take the whole World Cup performance and you won't see significant innings or a hundred from an Indian middle-order batsman.
The top three made the big scores and the day they failed, India also failed. Even in the wins against the West Indies, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, once the top order was dismissed there was a sudden dip in run rate and India eventually posted a total lower than what was expected while the likes of Rohit and Kohli were at the crease.
What is the path that lies ahead?
So where do India go from here? Well, firstly they need to build a stable middle order. There is a lot of young talent in the country and the likes of Shubman Gill, Mayank Agarwal, Shreyas Iyer, and Rishab Pant should be given a long run to help them solidify a position in the team.
There has been plenty of chopping and changing the middle-order recently and we saw that in the World Cup itself with the likes of Shankar, Pant, Karthik all having tried the number 4 position to no avail. Yes, Dhawan's injury was a huge blow which forced Rahul, who was slotting in nicely at four, to bat up the order, but having said that with the talent that India possess it should not have been that difficult to set a solid middle order.
Credit has to go New Zealand who managed to expose the weakness, not many teams were able to do this during the entire tournament but the Kiwi bowlers were disciplined and stuck to their plans and were eventually rewarded. Williamson's captaincy has been the most impressive in this World Cup and he will surely be plotting another upset against the 'favorites' England in the final.
Also read - World cup all-time records