Team India Face Apathy, Brittle Middle Order
Chinks in the armour
Amidst underlying concern about the lack of momentum gathering for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2013, the idea of Virat Kohli now being pitched as a floater in India’s batting order to salvage India’s muted expectations seems a rather dangerous exercise in travesty this close to the tournament. Could the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) be blamed for not casting the net wide in one area and casting it too wide in another?
That things are moving at a snail’s pace as far as narrowing down India’s World Cup squad is concerned is an understatement. At the heart of the matter, seems a distinct case of both, apathy and a fragile middle order lacking in self-belief.
The BCCI have delayed the announcement of India’s squad, reportedly waiting on the injury recovery status updates on the likes of Jasprit Bumrah who will lead the India charge against Ireland in a Twenty20 international series and also, in the batting department, waiting on Shreyas Iyer and K. L. Rahul.
If the names do not exactly provoke a valid enough explanation, one has only to dig below the surface to realise that India’s proven match winners do not even amount to a handful. And worse still, the current captaincy record is not enough for Indian fans to wake up excited out of bed.
Yet jingoistic fervour is not to be discounted and perhaps the BCCI is counting on this come the World Cup to cover up certain obvious chinks in India’s armour.
While India remain one of the tournament favourites, based simply on the fact that the team will be playing on home turf and have one or two outright champions in captain Rohit Sharma and his predecessor, Virat Kohli, the signs that it is not enough is already being weighed in cricket circles.
Amongst the most disturbing discussions coming out in the open, with less than two months to go for the ICC Cricket World Cup, is the idea of floating Virat Kohli as India’s mainstay batsman. But if this is the only panacea India can come up with with barely sixty days to go for the World Cup, it is a sign India are in big trouble.
There is a two point problem in this scenario where Kohli, not Sharma, is being hailed as the cornerstone to India’s prowess and success.
For one, Sharma might not want his stature undermined, complicated by the fact that ever since Kohli was dislodged from the seemingly steady captaincy by the BCCI top brass, things have looked far from rosy with Sharma taking the brunt of that criticism. It would not bode well, knowing for all practical purposes that the writing is on the wall as far as his captaincy tenure goes beyond the World Cup, irrespective of the result.
That Rohit needs to be cushioned in a position far more comfortable to him than Kohli does says Kohli is capable of handling the audacious change at the late hour and Rohit cannot.
One would think, on the flipside, there is a point to be made when Hardik Pandya, considered captain-in-waiting, came across as rather blase at the conclusion of the recent Twenty20 international series against the West Indies when he reportedly said that “it didn’t matter” if India lost the odd series.
Given India’s crowded calendar, even with another World Cup on the same soil seemingly far away – which again smacks of lack of foresight which is the problem here to begin with, with fewer opportunity, intel gathering is an essential part of every tour, a fact that Pandya cannot afford to be flippant about, if he is to don India’s most coveted hat in less than a year’s time as is being speculated.
It would be worthwhile to point out that the ignominy in question is not small matter not only given the length of time when India last fell flat on its face as it did in the West Indies, losing the series 3-2 to a team that has tasted past World Cup glory but more importantly from India’s perspective, has failed to qualify for both, the ICC Cricket World Cup as well as the ICC Twenty20 World Cup.
In that light, even if the formats might be different, if winning is an essential part of the momentum, India cannot afford to write off these losses. Or travel like tourists, when the point is to condition themselves as best as possible when sterner tests await and against opponents not reduced to qualifiers.
More is learnt in losses as much as it is in victory. Ravichandran Ashwin spoke to this, alluding to previous captains and learning, a sign that there are differences even within team India about how things are being perceived.
Coming back to the position of Virat Kohli’s batting order, it is an ironic scenario that two years since the shenanigans of the ouster of Kohli as captain, he is being considered as the only focal point that could save India the blushes at the World Cup.
He was not considered captaincy worthy material in a trophy barren measurement but the musical chairs that the BCCI selection panel played in the lead up to the World Cup. This was partly through unavailability of Rohit Sharma, and yet again this was a controversial subject when he was recently rested again when team bonding is an exercise not to be underestimated and that too this close to the world Cup. It has left little time and room at the top for the team to settle under a singular leadership or even for a team composition to fall into place under one captain who knows his own place and can find his feet.
If Pandya felt comfortable enough to utter those words, perhaps it is not so much complacency about the soon to be vacated spot but the lack of conviction that there is healthy competition for the huge role, which there should have been given how the BCCI has handed out the captaincy hat since Kohli.
It seems almost unfair on a stage as big as the ICC Cricket World Cup that Kohli would be asked to drop down from his position of No.3 where he has arguably been far more successful to India’s cause, simply because India’s tail essentially begins after No. 3 when the middle order has been far from consistent. This is not only in terms of the players being slotted but also, from their own performances which also, arguably, might owe some of it to the uncertainty that runs rampant within the team.
Amidst concern that beyond the top 3, India are staring at an abyss and in the case of an early collapse, that India do not have a middle order to bank on is a worrying admission and discussion in both, India and worldwide cricket circles.
No amount of patch up will cover this bald spot, and unless India’s relatively unknown players raise the level of their game at the time of the World Cup, India could be facing a tough litmus test of reality at home.
One couldn’t say they didn’t have time to prepare. Focus has rested so much around the drama of Virat Kohli’s ouster, it seems no one was paying attention to the fact that Rohit Sharma loves his opening batting slot, vindicated by numbers, and Virat Kohli is prolific at No.4, a fact undeniable as daylight and that India need to fill up the rest of the batting order as well after the likes of Mahendra Singh Dhoni and in the absence of Rishabh Pant.
With a lot riding on Shubman Gill as Rohit’s opening partner, India are having a tough time slotting other young India hopefuls like Ishan Kishan and Shreyas Iyer. With Rishabh Pant’s injury, the wicket-keeper’s slot has been left barren and controversy-free or so one would think given how the dividing line has been rather distinct between those backing Pant’s maverick but match-winning game approach with the bat and those vehemently opposed to it.
But K.L. Rahul poses problems not only with a hamstring injury that has kept him on the sidelines since the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2023 but also, that he has not been in the best of form with the bat or the gloves and is not a popular choice though it would appear he has favour from the upper echelons.
Iyer dropped out due to back injury during the Border Gavaskar Trophy Test series and subsequently underwent surgery. So, there is some sweating to do not only on the availability of these players but also, their match fitness.
The counterweight to India’s fragile middle order should have been their bowling. But it seems there is little discussion beyond Japrit Bumrah, who despite his strike bowling prowess, has been largely MIA with injuries that erupt after the IPL, raising a lot of scrutiny amongst Indian fans. And it must point also to where the BCCI steps, or rather doesn’t, in as far as looking after these players for national duties above commercial value goes.
Ishan Kishan probably poses the biggest headache for India and it might also be why there is contemplation of tinkering with India’s batting order which might not only be dangerous but also, diabolical from India’s perspective at this deep end with next to no trail of this in real match time.
There is some speculation whether Rohit Sharma would be willing to come down from his opening slot as far as no.3 to make room for Kishan and Gill to work their magic at the top. It would seem that Kohli might be asked to vacate the one place he thought he had reserved for himself, at least until the end of this World Cup edition.
Kohli’s numbers at no.3 are far sturdier and bulky than at no.4 to be dismissed lightly. Kohli averages 55 with the bat at No. 4 and seven one day international centuries to his name at his position.
It is not a bad ploy. But when compared to his numbers at No. 3, it is obvious India do not want to be playing bluff with the opposition with so few ace cards up their sleeve.
At No. 3 Kohli has scored 39 of his 46 centuries with a batting average of 60. This is to say, it is possible but not practical for the foreseeable future. You can shake the foundation because the rest of the building would not stand on its own merit if the brick building itself is faulty with the cement not sufficiently filled in through the gaps.
What happened to “don’t fix it, if it isn’t broken”? While foreign commentators are raising the possibility, the fact that even Ravi Shastri, India’s former coach, has chipped in that the idea did cross his mind at the 2019 World Cup does little for India’s cause, unless the goal is to unsettle the present management and drop seeds of doubt in their mind.
It feels almost conspiratorial to entertain the possibility as it is to play around with ideas when fine tuning the fork is the only thing that should have been left to this eleventh hour.
In India’s case, the shaky build up has begun from floors 4 to 7 and perhaps the BCCI should have looked at it when building the FSI and not focussed so much on the foundation alone, which was looking after itself, leaving things apart from maybe trimming the feathers if they so felt the need instead of clipping the wings altogether, disabling the bird itself from flight.
There might be a case for every player adapting to the times and not being rigid. But is this about the player or more about the team strategy and board vision? After all, few players are as versatile, adapting not only their temperament but also technique to the modern game or even work as hard as Kohli does.
Pandya seems casual about his Test status and seems okay to talk brave when with egg on the face as has happened in the West Indies. Fortunately there were no major broadcast rights involved but it was aired on the national broadcaster for free, which arguably has a bigger reach of audience if anyone cared.
Kohli carries rare combination of passion for the modern game that includes Twenty20 and a reverence for Test cricket, and might even be the last generation of players who have witnessed as well as created history as multi dimensional players.
The attempt is at bolstering the middle order and adding a longer backbone by dislodging a player, from a position where he has been a matchwinner far too many times. This smacks of desperation and gambling without calculated risk. And the World Cup is not a place for experimentation, a cliché apparently not repeated enough in India’s case.
Perhaps the bigger question to be asked is not if Kohli should be asked to give up his position but who should, at the BCCI, for leaving matters so late, for not testing out the waters when opportunities presented themselves, and for resting players when they should be getting as much match readiness under their belt, not at the IPL but in bilateral series, with something as big as the home edition of the ICC Cricket World Cup around the corner?