India's Middle Order Shaping Up, Finally
The vulnerable underbelly of India's ODI batting
When the three frontline batsmen in your side are as clinical as Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli, one cannot entirely blame the middle order for putting its feet up and basking in the glory of series victories.
Yet, the occasional collapse at the top did expose the rather vulnerable belly of India's ODI batting, which came to the fore in the Champions Trophy final as Mohammad Amir and co ran it through.
While India's eternal hunt for a reliable no.4 tends to hog the headlines, the fact is that few in the middle-order had been clicking on a consistent basis. After an Asia Cup triumph, where the middle order came a cropper the two times they were exposed early, the West Indian home series was a crucial one for the Indian side to identify their middle-order candidates for next year’s World Cup.
In an inadvertent audition, India have managed to resolve at least some middle order issues, with Ambati Rayudu, the man who propelled the Chennai Super Kings’ to an IPL triumph in 2018, owning the no.4 position. Rayudu was exceptional in the series and managed to rack up a hundred, something only two batsmen prior to him (Manish Pandey and Yuvraj Singh) had done from no.4 since the last World Cup.
Rayudu's confidence and authority at the crease were a rare sight from an Indian no.4, and a much needed one for the position had been a major headache for India ahead of the World Cup. His assuredness perhaps stemmed from the words of Virat Kohli before the series, where he effectively endorsed Rayudu as the right man for the position.
"The only position we were trying to figure out was number four, for a long time. We tried many players who unfortunately could not capitalise or cement their places in the way we wanted. With Rayudu coming in and playing well in the Asia Cup, it's about giving him enough game time till the World Cup so that particular slot will be sorted for us," Kohli said ahead of the first one-dayer against the West Indies.
As though to back up his skipper's words, Rayudu came out all guns blazing in the second ODI, smashing a 73 full of intent. When later he rued missing out on a hundred despite managing to impress with the bat, one could sense the hunger in Rayudu's words.
An average of 50-plus hadn't been enough for Rayudu to seal down a spot in the ODI side before this. Poor strike rates, slow running between the wickets and the ready availability of alternative players all worked against Rayudu, despite his more than decent run in the side.
When he returned to the team, Rayudu failed to clear the yo-yo test and missed out on the tour of England.
But with the no.4 position continuing to create problems, Kohli and co had no qualms about going back to Rayudu, who had proved his fitness by then. After that, it was all about grabbing the chance and Rayudu, who hit a peak in yellow this IPL, aced the test. His improved attacking instinct, ability to read match situations and play accordingly and his reliability have impressed the Indian skipper.
After a sensational hundred at the Brabourne stadium, Rayudu earned words of praise from Kohli yet again. “Rayudu has taken his opportunity with both hands. We need to back him till that big World Cup and give him more confidence. He is feeling good about his game and he is a very confident man. He reads the game really well, and we are happy that someone with intelligence is batting at number four,” Kohli said at the post-match presentation ceremony.
While Rayudu has settled in, Dhoni continues to be a worry, although the presence of Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya (once he returns) will lend firepower to India’s lower middle order. And with two pocketsized dynamites, KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant, waiting in the wings India’s lineup is assured of enough quality.
Rayudu has walked in to solve a ton of problems and his presence only frees up the top three to do incredible things. If Dhoni can rediscover his mojo before the marquee tournament, the Indians may showcase the strongest top seven in England.
The World Cup, though, is months away and the focus now will be to replicate their strong showing in the T20Is, and after that the tour of Australia.