India paying the price for failing to fill the middle-order void left by Suresh Raina

Ashish Peter 12/02/2018
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Raina's quick-fire cameos down the order is sorely missed.

It has been more than two years since Suresh Raina last featured for India in an ODI.

The 31-year-old, who was a vital component of the side’s 2011 ICC World Cup winning side, ultimately lost his place after a string of poor performances against South Africa at home in 2015.

Ironically, he was sorely missed in India’s defeat at the hands of the Proteas in the fourth ODI at Johannesburg on Saturday. After Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli had set up the visitors nicely for a final assault in the death overs, India’s middle-order batsmen failed to drive home the advantage.

That proved costly as the hosts kept the series alive with a thrilling five-wicket win. The likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Shreyas Iyer and MS Dhoni failed to provide the acceleration needed in the closing stages as India went from 200-2 in 34 overs to eventually finish on 289-7.

As the middle-order struggled to lift the scoring rate despite being given the perfect platform, one could not help but wonder how valuable a quick-fire 30 or 40 from Raina would have been in that instance. The southpaw’s role in the erstwhile Indian side had been that of a finisher, the batsman who profits in the death overs after the top order has laid a solid foundation.

Yuvraj and Raina were excellent finishers for India in their prime.

Yuvraj and Raina were excellent finishers for India in their prime.

It was this ability of Raina, and Yuvraj Singh as well, to score quick runs towards the end that was a valuable asset to the ODI side. The fact that the pair could also bowl some part-time spin was an added bonus.

India’s template in 50-over cricket over the past few years has depended on the top-order sticking around until the 40th over mark before launching a final assault.

With Dhoni’s powers fading, the middle-order conundrum facing Kohli at the moment can all be attributed to a failure to replace Raina and Yuvraj adequately.

They may have potentially secured the latter’s replacement in Hardik Pandya but there still remains a Raina-shaped void.

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India Under-19 World Cup star Shubman Gill hits another century

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Gill hit an unbeaten ton in a domestic 50-over game.

India’s batting prodigy Shubman Gill extended his Under-19 World Cup winning form to the domestic circuit as he smashed an unbeaten century to guide his state side Punjab to a four-run victory against Karnataka.

Playing in the 50-over domestic Vijay Hazare Trophy, Gill hit 123 off 122 balls to help Punjab post 269-3 from their quota of overs. He added 125 runs for the second wicket with Mandeep Singh (64) after Punjab lost their first wicket without a run on board.

After Mandeep got out, the 18-year-old teamed up with veteran Yuvraj Singh (36) to add 79 runs for the third wicket and help Punjab post a formidable target in Bengaluru.

In the chase, Karnataka were powered by a fine century by India international KL Rahul but the hosts fell short by four runs.

It has been a fine few months for Gill who was named player of the Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand where he scored 372 runs from five innings with one century and three fifties. Therefore, it came as no surprise when he was ‘bought’ for rupees 18 million ($280,000) by the Kolkata Knight Riders during the IPL player auction last month.

His poise at the crease and technical precision have made Gill one of the players to watch out for with many expecting him to make it to the national team sooner rather than later.

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Virat Kohli's Team India starting to look as good as MS Dhoni's 2011 World Cup winning side

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The Indian team is in imperious form.

After suffering a defeat in the Test series against South Africa, Virat Kohli’s India have turned it out around in fine fashion in the ODI series, racing away to a 3-0 lead in the six-match series.

The Men in Blue, already the top-ranked Test team, are all set to take over the No1 team ranking in the 50-overs format when the series comes to a conclusion, a feat which will give them the bragging rights in Tests and ODIs.

One more win from the remaining three games will make it nine bilateral series victories on the trot for Kohli’s men. Only one team in the history of ODI cricket has won more – the mighty West Indies side which won 14 bilateral series in succession between 1980 and 1988.

This run by India has included wins over New Zealand, England and Australia. In between this remarkable stretch, they also made it to the final of the ICC Champions Trophy in England last year before succumbing to Pakistan at the last hurdle.

Such dominance has made India early favourites for the 2019 World Cup along with hosts England. Naturally, comparisons are being made between the current Indian side and MS Dhoni’s team that lifted the 2011 World Cup on home soil.

Only two players remain from the 2011 side that beat Sri Lanka in the final at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai – former skipper Dhoni and the current leader. Three if you include Suresh Raina who is back in the T20 team.

Dhoni’s men had the luxury of having the great Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag open the batting. They are one of the most successful opening pairs in world cricket with 12 century stands between them in 93 matches. The current opening combination of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma is right up there, with 12 three-figure partnerships already in 72 matches.

India have the best ODI batsman going around in Virat Kohli himself.

Kohli is one of the best ODI batsmen the world has seen.

The current side also has the advantage of having the greatest one-day batsman of the modern era in Kohli. The skipper, having registered his 34th one-day ton, is poised to better Tendulkar’s tally of 49 ODI centuries – a mark which seemed unreachable at one point.

Kohli also boasts of a bowling attack capable of overpowering any opposition following the emergence of wrist spinners  Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav. Dhoni had to make do with Harbhajan Singh, who was already on his way down during 2011 campaign.

In Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, they have two pacers just as good if not better than Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra and Munaf Patel. The current new-ball pair has seen their stocks rise rapidly in limited-overs cricket with their ability to pick wickets at the start while being tight during the death overs.

Kohli’s squad looks almost ready with the World Cup now just over a year away. However, it is the middle-order that is still a concern. The likes of Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey, Ajinkya Rahane and Shreyas Iyer have all been tried out at various times over the past few seasons but no batsman has sealed the spot.

Also, the 2011 side had the all-round capabilities of man-of-the-tournament Yuvraj Singh at their disposal. His explosive batting lower down the order along with crucial wickets through his left-arm spin were the driving force behind India’s victorious campaign.

Kohli will be hoping Pandya can fill Yuvraj Singh's boots.

Pandya needs to raise his game this season.

Kohli and the team management will be hoping that Hardik Pandya improves his game by the time the World Cup starts. They also have to make do with a Dhoni whose is losing his edge with the bat. While the veteran remains one of the best keepers in the limited-overs format, the spark in his batting is long gone. This has seen India struggle to accelerate in the death overs.

Ultimately, while Kohli’s team is as good if not better than their 2011 counterparts in the top-order and bowling attack, they are missing a few crucial pieces.

Results indicate they are one of the best ODI sides India have produced but until they win a World Cup, they can’t be called the best. But they do seem well on their way towards becoming one.

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