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“Batting down the order is one of the toughest things to do. You don’t get a (ready-made) player who’s complete, who bats at No.5, 6 or 7, all the time.”
Skipper MS Dhoni chose his words carefully while addressing the media as he analysed India’s 19-run defeat to New Zealand to leave the series tied at 2-2, with everything to play for in Vizag on Saturday. That is, if cyclone Kyant is kind enough to allow play. Dhoni is right. Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Mohd Kaif and Dhoni himself developed those skills to finish a game over a course of 15-20 ODIs and repeatedly being put in such situations.
In the 1990s, invariably it was Ajay Jadeja and Robin Singh who performed that role.
So, what skills are required for batting at that number? Ability to read the situation, the wicket and the calmness to not go too early for the big shot and perish in the process.
Manish Pandey and Kedar Jadhav have been assigned that role now and neither of them have played long enough in those positions to succeed consistently. They are also by-products of the IPL era where they are required to play the big shots. Pandey perished trying to do that on Wednesday while Jadhav perished attempting a cute stroke at the Kotla. Ditto for Hardik Pandya. What the finishers of the past, named above, benefitted from was a crack opening pair in either Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly or Ganguly and Sehwag, or Sehwag and Tendulkar, who invariably got the team off to sublime starts. Pandey and Jadhav have not enjoyed that luxury.
They have also been a bit crippled by the fact that the skipper’s hitting skills and the ability to rotate strike on difficult pitches have been on the wane over the last 18 months.
In Mohali, when he scored 80, Dhoni had good allies in the form of a true pitch and a red-hot Virat Kohli. Kohli’s skill to find the gaps consistently enabled Dhoni to create his own tempo and rhythm and play a key role in the win. In Ranchi, on a tired pitch, and with Kohli gone and the game still in balance, he had to make all the play on his own.
As his 11 off 31 balls illustrated, he wasn’t equipped to do it. Ajinkya Rahane batted well for his 57, but he is not the batsman that can take you home. Not yet anyway. He has hardly batted beyond the 35th over, barring the odd knock. While Dhoni will go down in history as one of India’s and the game’s greatest ever middle-order players, he is right now in the need of support when it comes to injecting momentum in chases. At 30 or 32, one could hope for stirring solos from him. Without Suresh Raina or Yuvraj Singh and without a solid and in-form top-order, those solos won’t happen.
It was proved in Sydney where Dhoni fed off Pandey (104* off 81 balls) to score 34 off 42 balls as India chased down 331. In Kanpur last year, against South Africa, Rohit Sharma slammed a sublime 150 and till he was there Dhoni did not feel troubled. But the moment Rohit departed with India needing 34 from 23 balls, Dhoni struggled.
ALL SET FOR DECIDER: India and New Zealand have been tied 2-2 twice in the past in five-match series. In 1995, India managed to win the final ODI at the Brabourne Stadium to clinch the series under Mohammad Azharuddin. In 1999, Tendulkar led India to a series win in the fifth ODI at the Kotla.
PROBLEM AREAS FOR INDIA UNDER-PERFORMING TOP-ORDER: Since 2013, very rarely have India not got good starts. In the four ODIs here, India’s starts have been 49, 21, 13 and 19. Rohit Sharma is yet to cross 15 in the four ODIs and he is one of India’s key players. His lack of form has put Kohli and Dhoni under pressure.
IN-EXPERIENCED MIDDLE-ORDER: Axar Patel, Manish Pandey, Hardik Pandya and Kedar Jadhav may have played the odd great knock, but they haven’t been in the trenches fighting for the side and rescuing the team from tough situations enough number of times. With Raina (unwell) or Yuvraj (ignored), the team lacks experience in tight scenarios.
PROFLIGATE BOWLING: India have so far bowled 30 wides in the series which is five extra overs. Umesh Yadav has contributed to 11 of those. In the absence of Shami, he was expected to lead the attack, but inconsistency has been his trusted friend and has always been reluctant to leave his company.
AXAR’S ROLE: When Dhoni was asked about Mumbai all-rounder Abhishek Nayar during the 2009 Champions Trophy, he has snidely remarked, I don’t know whether he is a batsman who could bowl or a bowler who could bat. Axar Patel, who has enjoyed the trust of the skipper falls in the same boat too as he has not inspired with the bat or ball, barring the last game in Ranchi where he scored 38.