Top-order dependency causes shock exit for India
It is all very good to deem this move ‘flexibility’ when the top-order is firing and scoring runs, winning you games every where. It is a totally different matter when you are 5-3 in a semi-final, chasing 240 on a pitch where the ball is stopping before coming to the bat.
Playing an ODI over two days is strange. There is so much bewildering emotion surrounding the game. Imagine – New Zealand were placed at 211-5 when rain stopped play on Tuesday. DLS had given them a par-score of 237, if play had continued.
What did they be thinking? Was that target enough for this Indian batting line-up? Alternately, what did the Indian team think? Easy enough for their batsmen to knock off and enter the World Cup final perhaps? It didn’t matter; they had to come back on Wednesday morning and start all over. Cricket can be weird like that.
Even so, there was no doubt that prolonged rain break helped New Zealand get a measure of what an ideal score was. When they came out to bat for the remaining 3.5 overs, the intent was clear. Despite on-point death bowling from Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, they were able to steal 37 runs in the last five overs overall. Surprisingly, it included only one boundary.
Stretch this back to the last ten overs, and New Zealand had scored 84 runs, with only five fours and a six. They ran 58 runs in the last ten overs, an obvious ploy to break down the death bowling from Kumar-Bumrah. More importantly, it underlined that the Indian batting line-up had a challenge on its hand given the slow nature of this Old Trafford pitch. The ball was stopping and even the big hits were not taking off the square. 240 seemed enough!
It was an iffy target again, like the one India faced against South Africa in their opening game at Southampton. Only this time around, things were different. This batting line-up, as in-form as it was, faced a bowling attack that is well versed with defending low totals. New Zealand have played attrition cricket throughout this World Cup – they haven’t scored too high, but they haven’t allowed other teams to score high against them either. Only England managed to get past 300 against the Black Caps.
Then, there is the part where India’s top-order dependency kicks in. Coming into this tournament, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli had scored 55 per cent of this team’s ODI runs. With Dhawan out injured, adding KL Rahul to this equation, they replicated good form in this World Cup, contributing 63 per cent of India’s runs in the last eight games.
There are two ways to look at this. From an Indian perspective, it spelled confidence that their main batsmen were in-form and looking to contribute big again. Especially Kohli, for he didn’t have a hundred to his name in this tournament and this was a big stage set right for a batsman of his aura. From a New Zealand perspective, it was all about targeting that top-order and exposing the middle-order weakness. Guess which one came to play out in tough batting conditions?
It was a horror show, spanning 11 deliveries – Rohit and Rahul nicked behind, in between Kohli trapped lbw. All three of the gone for a mere total of three runs, and India were left in the lurch. Their ODI batting template, so dependent on the top-order batting deep, was completely ripped apart. And to top it all, there was no plan B.
In fact, there has never been anything but a plan A. It is seen from how the Indian team management only adopted a flexible policy considering the middle order. They kept fiddling and fiddling, and fiddled some more, trying out as many as 12 batsmen at number four since the 2017 Champions Trophy. Overall, 15 batsmen were tried in different spots in that middle-order. How many got ten consecutive games batting at the same spot? Perhaps only Ambati Rayudu, and he wasn’t even chosen for this World Cup squad.
And so it was no surprise that Rishabh Pant didn’t know how to counter the situation, as he holed out, throwing away his wicket to the trap set by Mitchell Santner. It was no surprise that Hardik Pandya was cramped for room, and comfort, meaning when he should have been rotating strike, he went for the big shots. It was no surprise that Dinesh Karthik and MS Dhoni didn’t bat at their intended positions, and swapped roles for number five and seven, respectively.
It is all very good to deem this move ‘flexibility’ when the top-order is firing and scoring runs, winning you games every where. It is a totally different matter when you are 5-3 in a semi-final, chasing 240 on a pitch where the ball is stopping before coming to the bat. Ravindra Jadeja’s rear-guard action was only a personal ego boost and it failed to save the day.
Let it be said here that India’s top-order dependency and their middle-order weakness combined in the same game to cause their downfall and a shock exit from the World Cup they should have won.