It was an implosion waiting to happen. Almost everyone had suspected it will. And the worst was confirmed when it mattered the most.
The vulnerability of the Indian team’s middle-order stood exposed in their first semi-final match of World Cup 2019 against New Zealand as they crumbled on a difficult pitch in a tricky chase and ultimately failed to take the team across the line.
Throughout the ICC World Cup 2019, it was India’s top-order that had been doing almost all the heavy lifting. Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and captain Virat Kohli had done the bulk of the scoring in the tournament and whenever the fragile Indian middle-order was tested they failed to deliver. In the league stage, the likes of MS Dhoni, Vijay Shankar, Rishabh Pant, Kedar Jadhav and Dinesh Karthik, on different occasions, couldn’t come to the occasion. The middle-order never bore a settled look and batsmen were changed constantly in the positions or were either removed altogether.
This uncertainty inspired no confidence in the Indian middle-order and there was always a concern that they might falter at the big moment. And that is exactly what happened as the top-order failed cheaply against New Zealand in the semi-final and the middle-order couldn’t come to India’s rescue.
Virat Kohli, in his post-match presentation said that 45 minutes of bad cricket cost them the semi-final. While that may be true in some way, the real reason was that the Indian team management had failed to have a settled middle-order long before the World Cup even began. From 2017 onwards, the likes of Yuvraj Singh, Manish Pandey, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu and Shreyas Iyer were tried in the middle-order in different series. Then, for a long time it appeared that Rayudu would be the No.4 in the World Cup. Even captain Kohli said the same last year.
But a couple of bad series saw him being sidelined completely and the likes of Vijay Shankar and Rishabh Pant being suddenly encouraged for that role. Both of these are inexperienced players and didn’t have enough international exposure to thrive in the pressure of a World Cup. But the Indian think tank thought otherwise and their plan failed.
This is where MS Dhoni was different as a captain. He planned his team well ahead of time and had his players and their roles fixed in his mind at least 3 years before a tournament like the World Cup or the Champions Trophy. Even other successful teams in the ongoing World Cup like England and New Zealand have had the same set up for the last three years. They invested in their players, gave them roles and backed them through and through without much chopping and changing.
This is something that Virat Kohli and the Indian team management should have learned from. That much uncertainty over the exact positions of players in the middle-order, the constant chopping and changing even during the tournament and the unsettled look it bore was simply way to risky going into a World Cup.
Hopefully, India will have learned its lessons and would try and invest in the right players – a mixture of youth and experience – for the next four years. That might well go on to solve the Indian middle-order muddle finally.