By: Chinmay Vaidya
It's been a conversation since the 2017 Champions Trophy with the initial noise starting over the prior year. India's middle order was going through a rough patch with an aging Yuvraj Singh admirably trying to hold the batting lineup together. With India's superstar triumvirate of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli cemented at the top, the feeling was at least one player would click every match. India rounded out the rest of its lineup with high-powered hitters while MS Dhoni occasionally played the foundational role late. It worked well; India made the semifinal of the 2015 World Cup, the 2016 T20 World Cup, the 2017 Champions Trophy and the 2019 World Cup. However, the team's downfall in each ODI event was similar.
India's top order would collapse and suddenly, middle-order players who were used to smashing around the ball had to temper their game. Some were ill-suited for the role and some just didn't perform. After the failure in the semifinal of the 2019 World Cup, the calls for young talent like Rishabh Pant (who played at the end of the tournament) and Shreyas Iyer grew louder. India has made those two regulars in one-day and T20I games, but has either justified being kept in the playing XI?
It's important to preface the following with two points. The first is India might not have better options than Pant and Iyer going forward. Young players will take time to develop. Not everyone is going to turn into Sachin Tendulkar or Kohli. The expectations for both players are through the roof, making even good performances look ordinary. Pant and Iyer still have high ceilings, despite their struggles.
The second point is Kohli's comments in an interview with BCCI TV.
"I think firstly, from the team and the management point of view, we’re very clear on the fact that, even when I came into the team, it’s not like you got 15 opportunities," Kohli said in the interview. "You’ve got 5 and you’ve got the make the most of it."
Clearly, there is internal optimism for emerging talent in India's cricket ranks. If a player can be ousted after five poor performances, that must mean there is someone ready to step up. Guys like Prithvi Shaw, Nitish Rana, Shubman Gill and Ishan Kishan have shown promise in the IPL. Perhaps India's management believes these players are ready for the big show.
Pant is one of the most confusing cases in cricket right now. He's wildly talented and his IPL numbers reflect that. Here are his total runs and strike rates in four IPL seasons.
Runs: 198, 366, 684, 488
Strike Rate: 130.2, 165.6, 173.6, 162.6
Clearly, Pant can play. The question is why he is continually being asked to play in a position he might not be best suited for. He's currently the No. 4 batsman for India and the results in 19 T20I innings have not shown anything for him to continue getting chances in the squad.
In 19 T20I innings, Pant has gotten out on zero or single figures 11 times. Seven of those instances came form the No. 4 spot. That's a whopping 58 percent of his appearances. He's gotten a 50 twice. Ironically, both of his half-centuries have come from the No. 4 spot. If Kohli's claim is true about players having limited chances, how many more does Pant get? And how many of those chances will be at a position he hasn't played well in?
Iyer, on the other hand, might not be a T20I player. He's done incredibly well in the one-day format and should be a regular in that lineup with four half-centuries in seven innings. But on the T20 level, Iyer should not be considered the future at the international level. Here are his IPL numbers in the last four seasons for total runs and strike rate.
Runs: 439, 338, 411, 463
Strike Rate: 128.3, 139.1, 132.6, 119.9
The volume is fantastic, but the strike rate is not. At the T20I level, Iyer isn't even showing the volume. His true average is 14.85 in seven innings with a strike rate just below 102.0. He looks like a star in the making at the one-day level, but Iyer hasn't done enough to justify a spot in India's T20I XI. As the captain said, it could come down to a handful of chances.
An under-the-radar name in India's middle order search is KL Rahul. He's been a regular in India's squads and has produced at both levels. His true average is 32.0 in ODIs and 35.96 in T20Is. He's performed tremendously at the IPL level and can also be a wicketkeeper if needed. Rahul is also versatile enough to open the innings in the shortest format if needed. India has younger players like Gill waiting, but Rahul could be the answer at No. 4 in both formats. He has done well in the chances he's gotten, something Pant and Iyer can't say.