By: Aashay Chavan
India would have felt something marvelous about its chances in this home series two months ago, batting order shakiness notwithstanding. Having come off a historic series win down under in both ODIs and Tests, India had every reason to feel confident on home soil against a weakened Australian side.
Yet here we are in March, unimpressed.
Up 2-0 to losing the series 3-2. It was memorable for all the wrong reasons. There can be no excuses made for the losing side. Not even the fact that they rotated much of their roster, as well as their much-maligned middle order. It’s generally understood that there needs to be some experimentation done before the World Cup, but almost none of the options are really showing anything of note. There’s next to no chance that the World Cup trophy can be lifted by the Men in Blue with this recent top-heavy strategy of relying on the top three to score eighty percent of the runs.
It’s a recurring theme in wins - two of the top three of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, and Shikhar Dhawan click, and it’s curtains for the opposition. Unfortunately, it’s also a recurring theme in losses. One or two of them fall early, and the extremely flimsy middle order either has to dig in and build up a chase slowly, or there’s an inevitable collapse.
Even Dhoni’s recent purple patch might not be able to string together enough innings in a row to salvage this. There are many options to choose from, yet none of them up to par as one would expect from a usually star studded Indian batting lineup.
You’ve got Vijay Shankar. His name is rising among the ranks: solid all-rounder, can contribute with both ball and bat. The issue is he always seems to hit a rash shot to throw his wicket away after solid starts. You’ve got some old heads like Ravindra Jadeja. Personally, I don’t believe he should have a slot in the World Cup roster but name recognition may say otherwise. Hardik Pandya will be back. He’s a solid option so no questions there.
That leaves the juggling of Ambati Rayudu, Dinesh Karthik, Rishabh Pant, Suresh Raina (bleh), and KL Rahul. Not exactly fear-inducing for the opposition, especially when you factor in the inexperience coupled with English conditions.
One stat that stands out is the average starting position for the middle order is around 37-3. That’s simply unacceptable. At that point, if you’re lucky, you’re relying on one of the experienced top 3 to shine and carry his bat. India couldn’t defend 358 in the fourth match, and it couldn’t chase 273 in the defining one-day. These are on totally different wickets, but the main point still stands. It was the same result.
It took an incredible display of willful late-order batting by Kedar Jadhav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the final match to even bring India close to chasing a winnable score. There needs to be a serious internal discussion by the selectors and Kohli to decide as to who will bring stability to the middle order. I feel like we’ve talked about this topic the most by far, but nothing has changed for almost three years.
As for the Australians, Usman Khawaja really emerged this series. He deserved the Man of the Series award with 383 runs and two centuries over the five matches. It’s the most by any batsman in a bilateral series vs India. With Khawaja’s comeuppance and the return of Mitchell Starc, Steven Smith, and David Warner, Australia’s stock certainly looks to be rising as the World Cup nears.
I wouldn’t necessarily call them favorites as there’s still a considerable gap between them and the upper tier of England and India, but it’s not a stretch to say they could make some noise. After all, the men in Canary Yellow usually do when it comes to these major tournaments.