After a tournament where India’s openers have been supreme, Virat Kohli has no better idea who should make up his World Cup middle order – Ben Jones casts his eye over the data to try and find out.
India have progressed through the Asia Cup with little to no worry, save for a brief scare against Hong Kong in the group stage. Their dominance has been built on the excellent form of openers Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, the two collecting a combined 596 runs across the competition so far, at a startling average of 99.33. The opening partnership in this Indian side is an undisputed strength.
However, it has created a problem. In a tournament partially framed as a series of auditions for the middle order spots looking ahead to the World Cup, the Indian middle order has barely faced a ball. What’s more, this isn’t a short-term issue; for a prolonged period now, alongside the excellence of Virat Kohli, India’s outstanding top three has starved the middle order of game time. Since the start of 2017, India’s middle order (No.4-No.7) have faced 32.3% of the team’s total deliveries, the lowest proportion of any team in the world.
Of course, this can be seen as a virtue. More often than not, India’s top order are getting the job done; a win-percentage of 73.8% in that time, second only to England’s 74.3%, does not suggest that India are struggling. The issue is more hypothetical. Among fans and pundits, there appears little confidence that India’s middle order can cope if they are required to bail out the top order.
That lack of faith may be well founded. If India are generally regarded as either the best or the second best ODI side in the world, then their middle order does not hit the heights of the rest of the team. Their middle order has scored at 5.51rpo since the start of 2017, the fourth fastest of any ODI side; the Indian middle order contributes a combined 110 runs per innings, the fourth lowest of any ODI team; combined, they hit an average of 1.8 sixes a match, the fifth most in the world and the same as the United Arab Emirates. In its current guise, the Indian middle order offers neither acceleration, substance or explosive power. So far, the Indian selectors haven’t got it right.
The problem can be crystallised in the No.4 spot. Since the start of 2017, India have played 42 ODIs; they have fielded eight different players in the No.4 position. Those eight players represent an alarmingly diverse collection of skill-sets and abilities, evidence of the fact that India really don’t know what they want from the position, and none have been able to make the spot their own. Only one man, the veteran Yuvraj Singh, has scored more quickly and lost his wicket more rarely than the average in that time, and he has since fallen out of favour, perhaps for good.
So who should spearhead India’s middle order, arriving at the crease with two wickets fallen? Well, more than any other side in the world, they have options, and half the challenge is establishing what they want from their man in that role.
If they wish to select a pure batsman, simply the most effective all-round player regardless of their relation to the overall style of the side, then they should select Ajinkya Rahane. According to CricViz’s Batting Impact (a performance evaluation tool for limited-overs cricket which measures players against an average level of performance) then outside of that ferocious top three, Rahane has been India’s most effective ODI batsman in the last 18 months.
However, to opt for Rahane would be a very conservative selection. As shown in the scatter graph below, he has struggled to score quickly with attacking shots, making him less effective as the man to exploit the numerous platforms laid down by the top three. In this current side, with so much top-order dominance, the selection of Rahane could be seen as backwards step.
This clarifies the role of the No.4 in this particular Indian batting line-up. Regardless of the worry that a top order collapse leaves them vulnerable – commonly known as Mohammad Amir Fever – India should not be planning for failure. Dhawan, Rohit and Kohli (particularly the latter two) are among the finest ODI batsman to play the game, yet since the start of 2017, they have passed 320 on just six occasions. A conservative selection policy in the middle order, selecting more orthodox players like Pandey, Rahane, and Karthik, has meant that in the last ten overs, India have just the fourth fastest scoring rate of any team in the world. Again, it’s not desperately poor – but it’s not as elite as the rest of the side.
So, if they selected a player with this in mind, a player with the explicit mandate of exploding off a platform, who would it be? Well, as the previous scatter made evident, Yuvraj Singh has a reasonable argument for re-selection, as does Hardik Pandya for a promotion. However, whilst a return for the veteran would be a romantic tale and one many cricket fans would love to see, it’s unlikely at this stage; instead, let’s turn our attentions to the young all-rounder.
In raw terms, Hardik is India’s fastest scoring batsman of the last 18 months, one of only three players to score at above a-run-a-ball. Equally, if India wish to have more faith in intent than results, then they could reflect on the attacking shot percentages; Hardik plays a higher proportion of attacking shots than anyone else in this Indian set-up.
Alternatively, the Indian selectors could look outside of the current set-up. The Indian Premier League is a classic fall-back for the modern curmudgeon, the competition becoming a lightning rod for the ills of T20 – but it has produced, nurtured, and promoted some of the most vivacious white ball talent in world cricket over the past five years. There are surely few better breeding grounds for limited overs batting, so with a batsman needed to come into the ODI side and give it some oomph, why not look at the next generation.
The selectors may, quite rightly, be a touch twitchy about introducing a batsman with no international experience into the side ahead of a major world tournament, particularly when the role he’d be assuming is one which will likely only be tested under pressure. As such, they could be attracted by the blend of limited but significant experience (having just played in the most high profile Test series of the year) and raw, youthful skill offered by Rishabh Pant.
Of course, there is the option to select all three. A middle order with the security of Rahane at No.4, the all-round talent and hitting ability of Hardik at No.5, and the explosive preciousness of Pant at No.6. It would be among the finest middle orders in the world. However, it limits the balance of the side, removing the option for a sixth bowler and in doing so placing substantial emphasis on Hardik to complete his ten overs, something he’s only done 11 times in his 42 ODIs to date. Without two bowling options in the middle order, India are lacking a crucial component.
And so we come to the elephant in the room; there is little statistical basis for keeping MS Dhoni in the side. He has scored at 4.92rpo since the start of 2017, despite facing most of his deliveries at the end of the innings, and he has just the eighth highest Average Batting Impact. When he faces less than 20 balls in a match, India win 88% of the time; when he faces more than that, they win 53% of the time.
These are crude measures in many ways, and should not detract from the career of one of the finest cricketers to play in ODIs. But there is a reasonable argument that India have a better chance of winning the 2019 World Cup without him in the side. Without him, Pant can take the gloves. Without him an all-rounder, whether it’s Kedar Jadhav, Krunal Pandya, Axar Patel or Ravindra Jadeja, can take the No.7 position and offer that vital extra bowling option. It may be time for a ruthless decision to be made.
Regardless, the problem is there, and India need to solve it. They have numerous middle order options, and despite their best efforts in this Asia Cup, they haven’t seen an obvious contender rise to the top. With less than nine months to go before their opening match at the World Cup, it’s the only issue on the horizon for Kohli’s team – but it’s one they need to sort sooner rather than later.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.