Lord's defeat to England lays bare India's familiar middle-order woes

Ashish Peter 15/07/2018
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India's middle-order crumbled under the scoreboard pressure.

It has been more than a year since the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy final at the Oval in London when England and India clashed in the second ODI at Lord’s on Saturday. In exactly a year’s time, the final of the 2019 ICC World Cup will be held at the same venue which has been perennially hailed as the ‘home of cricket’.

What transpired at Lord’s on Saturday will have given Virat Kohli’s men horrible flashbacks of their 180-run thumping at the hands of arch-rivals Pakistan a year ago and will give them plenty of food for thought ahead of the 12 months that lie in store between now and the World Cup.

Faced with a daunting chase of 323 after being made to chase by England skipper Eoin Morgan, India’s familiar middle-order woes came to the surface once again as their top-order stumbled. It had been a similar story in the loss to Pakistan where the scoreboard pressure of a 300-plus chase had proved to be too much to handle for the middle-order after the stars at the top failed.

For the past two years or so, the men in blue have been heavily reliant on the top three of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Kohli to do the bulk of the run-scoring. Such has been their consistency that the middle-order has barely been tested to the hilt and on the rare occasions they have been so, they have failed to deliver the goods more often than not.

Kohli had spoken about the importance of testing middle-order combinations in the tour of UK and based on Saturday’s showing, the team management has a lot of thinking to do if they want to be serious contenders for the World Cup showdown.

The in-form KL Rahul was unable to make a dent after being dismissed for a duck while Suresh Raina showed some fight before throwing away a decent start. MS Dhoni’s patchy 59-ball 37 even drew audible boos from the largely India-centric crowd at Lord’s, forcing Kohli to come to his defence in the post-match press conference.

Dhoni's inability to score quick has become more evident recently.

Dhoni’s inability to score quick has become more evident recently.

In his last 13 ODI innings, Dhoni has scored 267 runs at an average of 29.66. While the average is still decent for a batsman who comes lower down the order, the strike-rate of 78.07 is a worrisome trend. With Dhoni’s growing inability to up the ante, the pressure on the other middle-order batsmen has only grown manifold.

In Hardik Pandya, India have an all-rounder who can turn it around with the bat on his day but Saturday was not to be that case. Unlike England, India does not have the luxury of a deep batting-order with its tail starting from the No8 position.

As such, the onus on the likes of Rahul, Raina and Pandya to perform when the top-order fails is even greater. The troubling aspect for India is that they have been nowhere close to solving their middle-order riddle in the past year with various batsmen being tried in those slots.

While Rahul and Raina are the current batsmen in the roles, the likes of Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey and Ajinkya Rahane have all been given a run with mixed results. Jadhav’s injury and Ambati Rayudu’s subsequent failure in the Yo-Yo test opened the doors for an ODI return for Raina in the ongoing series. It is his ability to provide a sixth bowling option that has seen him being favoured over Dinesh Karthik who continues to wait for a chance on the sidelines.

With the top-order very much secured along with Dhoni and Pandya being unshakable from their roles in the team, India are left with a conundrum in the remaining two middle-order slots. They will be hoping Rahul can seize his chance to hold down one of the slots but there still remains a question-mark over the other position.

The upcoming 12 months, starting with the ODI series decider at Headingley on Tuesday, will need to be devoted to solving those last few pieces of the puzzle or else results like Saturday’s will become a familiar sight.

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India captain Kohli defends Dhoni after former captain's bizarre innings during Lord's ODI defeat

Sudhir Gupta 15/07/2018
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India captain Virat Kohli defended wicketkeeper batsman MS Dhoni after the former captain’s strange innings in the second ODI against England at Lord’s on Saturday, which the visitors lost by 86 runs.

The Indians were 140-4 chasing 323 and needing 183 runs from 23 overs when Dhoni walked out to bat. But instead of taking on the bowling, Dhoni made a sedate 37 off 59 balls with just two hits to the fence.

India were dismissed for 236 off the last ball of the match as England leveled  the three-match series 1-1.

England Test pacer Stuart Broad, commentating on Sky Sports, said: “Today he (Dhoni) never really quite got going and he had no fluency to his batting. Two boundaries in 59 balls and you’re not going to win too many games doing that.”

Even former India off-spinner Harbhajan Singh said: “Today was definitely a different Dhoni we got to see. He normally does take his time, but then once he’s in he looks for the boundary. But, today he was short of partners, though he still probably defended too many balls.”

However, Kohli, quoted by AFP, defended his senior players by saying: “This comes up again and again when he is not able to play in the normal way he does. It’s very unfortunate people just jump to conclusions very quickly.

“When he does well, people call him the best finisher ever and when they don’t go well, they all pounce on him. We all have bad days in cricket and today was a bad one for everyone, not just him.

“Also, you want to take the innings deep; you don’t want to just lose by 160-170 runs, and he has the experience, but some days it just doesn’t come off. Other people jump to conclusions, but we don’t. We totally believe in him.”

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Kuldeep Yadav has given Indian selectors a headache ahead of England Test series

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Kuldeep Yadav (l) is expected to be part of Indian Test team.

Indian selection for the five-match Test series against England, which begins on August 1, is going to give selectors and management an almighty headache.

If combinations were difficult to finalise before the nearly three-month long tour of Ireland and England started, it’s only become tougher two weeks before the opening Test.

The Indian selectors have decided to announce the squad at the last possible moment, either on Sunday or Monday, as they wanted to see if anyone impressed or disappointed enough to warrant a change of plans during the limited-overs clashes with England so far. Let’s not forget there is the India A team as well that has played alongside their senior team in one-day and four-day matches.

Having said that, there were a few certainties when it came to the hierarchy in team. In typically English weather, most pack their team with seamers and have one quality spinner in the side for the second innings.

But this time two factors have changed their conversation in the Indian set-up. Firstly, an uncharacteristically dry spell has meant pitches in England this time of the year are particularly dry with groundsmen struggling to provide adequate swing and bounce.

If the situation persists, the whole one-spinner, rest seamers formula can be revisited by the Indian management.

The second factor that has become the elephant in the room is left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav. England have failed to pick the 23-year-old, it’s as simple as that. Also, a majority of his dismissals have been of the Test variety – beaten in the air and stumped, bowled or lbw neck and crop.

Also, captain Virat Kohli has stated that both Kuldeep and leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal can be selected for the Test series. Which is not the best idea because playing spinners in white ball cricket, when batsmen don’t have the option of playing out one spell after the other, and facing them in Tests where patience and consistency are key are two different ball games. But hey, this is Kohli’s India and anything is possible. At the beginning of the year, the Indians had inducted white ball specialist Jasprit Bumrah in the Test team for the South Africa series after being impressed with the way he bowled in the nets.

So, there is every chance Kuldeep and/or Chahal will get selected. If that happens, what happens to Ravi Ashwin and more importantly Ravindra Jadeja? These two spinners have been instrumental in helping India remain as the No.1 Test team in the world. And while they haven’t won Test series in major nations outside the subcontinent, 319 wickets for Ashwin and Jadeja’s 171 scalps can’t be simply brushed aside.

Having said that, if India decide to go with two spinners, Jadeja is most likely to miss out as Kuldeep has to be in the playing XI going by the tone of Kohli’s statement. If the Indians go with one spinner in the eleven, then does the record breaking 300-wicket taker Ashwin – who also has four Test tons – miss out?

Kohli has never gone in with the same playing XI in successive Test matches. While some decisions have been forced upon him due to injuries, others have been his call. So expect the Indian management to select one or both of Kuldeep and Chahal for the Test series and also the spin hierarchy of Indian cricket to get shuffled this English summer.

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