Top order, bowling and MS Dhoni look good but middle order remains an issue for India

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Kedar Jadhav (2nd r) has bowled well but his batting has lost its edge.

Experimentation was the key word for the Indians as they prepared for the ODI series against Sri Lanka. While results are important, there was a lot more at stake for Virat Kohli’s team.

With one eye on giving enough rest to the bowlers and the other on building a pool of bowlers for the 2019 World Cup in England, India benched Ravindra Jadeja, Ravi Ashwin, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav for the five-match series.

Despite fielding a second-string attack, the Indians have kept the Sri Lankans on a tight leash over the four matches, restricting the hosts to 216, 236-8, 217-9 and 207.

Seamer Jasprit Bumrah (13 wickets from four ODIs at an economy of 3.72) and spinner Axar Patel (six wickets from four games at 3.85) have kept a lid on scoring with good support from the likes of Hardik Pandya, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav.

Also at least two, maybe three, of the rested senior bowlers can walk into the side anytime, so the bowling stocks look healthy.

Batting (read the middle order) is another matter. The top order of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli is firing on all cylinders, which doesn’t come as a surprise given their form and the low morale of the hosts.

However, what the Indians really needed from the series was solidity in the middle and lower order.

Yuvraj Singh was omitted from the tour, which means his chances of playing the 2019 World Cup are as good as over.

Fellow all-rounder Suresh Raina too has fallen down the pecking order. India need versatility and experience at 5, 6 and 7 and that is still a work in progress.

Wicketkeeper batsman MS Dhoni had found his position in the team under scrutiny following the emergence of young gloveman Rishabh Pant and the presence of experienced heads like Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik in the periphery.

But after three innings against the islanders, Dhoni has silenced all doubters once and for all with unbeaten scores of 45, 67 and 49. His strike rate has decreased but the runs are still flowing and his consistency is more valuable to the team now that his power hitting. As former India opener Virender Sehwag said, there is no one who can replace Dhoni until the 2019 World Cup.

Even so, the middle order doesn’t looked settled. KL Rahul was tried out in the middle as you can’t dislodge Shikhar and Rohit from their spots even with a crowbar.

Rahul’s scores of 4, 17 and 7 against a weak Sri Lankan attack mean Ajinkya Rahane – who had a brilliant Test series and was the top scorer of in the ODI series in the West Indies (336 runs in five innings) – will force his way back into the playing XI.

Kedar Jadhav has been a bigger disappointment.

While Rahul is a long-term prospect in all formats, Jadhav has a specific role – a hard-hitting lower order batsman who bowls irritatingly slow spinners in limited overs matches. The casual manner of his dismissals finally caught up with Jadhav and his replacement Manish Pandey made the most of the opportunity, scoring 50 not out off 42 balls in the fourth match.

Pandey and Rahane look better prepared to play in the middle order but they don’t offer much when it comes to bowling, which is something Yuvraj, Raina and Jadhav offer.

Seamer Bhuvneshwar Kumar got the team out of trouble in the second ODI, scoring a fifty while chasing 231 and with the team tottering on 131-7. Ideally, India would have liked someone like a Rahul or Jadhav to make a statement. But you can’t have it all.

India have ticked many boxes in the first four ODIs. Dhoni’s batting and confident glovework have kept the system running smoothly. But the middle and lower order remain a problem area.

The Indian management knows that one of the biggest factors in India’s victorious campaign during the 2011 World Cup was a rock-solid middle order. Sort that out and India are as good as gold.

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After James Anderson, who is Test cricket’s next big bowling heavyweight?

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James Anderson is a rarity among contemporary Test bowlers as he approaches 500 wickets.

James Anderson is on the verge of becoming the sixth bowler in the history of cricket to pick up 500 Test wickets. The next highest wicket-taker on the list among current players is Dale Steyn (417), followed by Rangana Herath (389) and Stuart Broad (385).

Out of these four players, Sri Lankan spin veteran Herath is unlikely to play much longer as his 39-year-old body is beginning to break down.

Steyn last played a Test in November with a shoulder injury keeping him out of action. The Protea quick played just three out of nine Tests played by his country last year and it is tough to see him playing Test cricket consistently as and when he regains fitness because at 34, he is already very close to the end of the line in the five-day format. That leaves Broad, who at 31 has a decent amount of Test cricket left in his legs.

It means we might have to wait a long time for the next ‘big’ Test bowler. The benchmark here is 500 wickets, not 800 or even 600. Muttiah Muralitharan (800 wickets), Shane Warne (708) and Anil Kumble (619) are so far ahead in the tally, it seems futile to aim for that mark.

Maybe Ravi Ashwin (292 from 52 Tests) can cross the 500-wicket mark. But that is a long way away for the 30-year-old.

Also, Ashwin has to now share wickets with the established names like Ravindra Jadeja, Umesh Yadav and Mohammad Shami. Similarly, if and when Steyn returns, he will face competition from Kagiso Rabada, Chris Morris and Keshav Maharaj for scalps.

So why has the bar lowered for the bowlers, unlike batsmen?

Batsmen continue to break into the elite 10,000 Test-run club. In fact, Alastair Cook (11,581) looks capable of overhauling the all-time mark of Sachin Tendulkar (15,921). Younis Khan recently joined the club while Hashim Amla (8,281) and Ab de Villiers (8,074) can realistically hope to reach five digits.

The main factor now is longevity. Bowlers don’t seem to last at the international stage the way they used to, simply because of the amount of matches being played following the advent of T20 and franchise cricket.

Which is why after the current crop of top-class pacers retires, we might never see a pace heavyweight with 400 or 500 Test scalps next to his name.

It’s not as if bowlers aren’t picking up wickets. In the 2016/17 season, 34 Tests produced results with just four draws. It’s just that the wickets are being shared. Matches now regularly finish inside four days, which is more a reflection of batsmen’s willingness to play shots than the talent of bowlers because let’s admit it, there is no Murali or Glenn McGrath in the mix anymore.

That means decent bowlers have a greater chance of picking up wickets, sometimes irrespective of the nature of tracks, as batsmen are simply going for the shots.

It makes for more interesting viewing, but probably means there are a few more ‘cheap’ wickets to be had by any bowler willing to stay disciplined.

In 2006, Warne picked up his 700th wicket. In 2008, Kumble breached the 600-wicket mark. Two years later, Murali finished on 800 scalps. Those numbers look very much out of reach.

PACKED CALENDAR

The Big Bash League T20 tournament is generally held in December-January. It is followed by the Pakistan Super League in February-March. The Indian Premier League takes up the best part of April and May. The Caribbean Premier League is played from June to August. The Natwest T20 blast in England goes on from July to September. The November slot has been taken up by the Bangladesh Premier League and it will now have to share space with South Africa’s Global T20 league.

That’s nearly 12 months of non-stop cash-rich T20 cricket across the globe. The icing on top of the cake will be England’s new franchise-based T20 tournament.

What was once seen as a distant dream has become a reality – T20 cricket all year round.

While international cricket is still struggling to provide greater relevance to bilateral matches across formats, T20 cricket has burrowed into the calendar without wasting any time.

The reason behind it is simple – individual boards want to have their own T20 cash cows to sustain their international and domestic structure. T20 leagues need no structure or relevance. They just need to be there.

Also, T20 leagues, especially the franchise-based ones, rely on marquee names and they have become a safe avenue for aspiring and established players.

We now have international cricket all year round with hardly any break. And soon we will have T20 cricket running on a loop. Any chance of an overdose?

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Ageless Shahid Afridi blasts stunning 42-ball century

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Shahid Afridi.

Shahid Afridi blasted his highest score in T20 cricket last night with a brutal 42-ball century for Hampshire against Derbyshire.

Afridi’s 101 included seven sixes and 10 fours and was his first T20 hundred in 256 T20 matches.

Opening the batting after Derbyshire captain Gary Wilson had won the toss and put Hampshire in, Afridi immediately went to task blasting the bowlers to all corners of the County Ground in Derby.

He put on 43 for the first wicket with Calvin Dickinson and then 97 alongside England batsman James Vincent.

The 37-year-old brought up his century off the bowling Imran Tahir before celebrating to the crowd in trademark style, raising his bat with both arms aloft in the air.

After reaching triple figures, with a strike rate of 240.47, he was out next ball, top edging Matt Henry to Ben Cotton.

Hampshire eventually reached 249/8 with Vince adding 55.

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