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Wednesday, Oct 23, 2019

Time to tweak India’s middle game

Giving Shreyas Iyer and Manish Pandey a long rope may solve India’s middle-order woes post World Cup

cricket Updated: Jul 22, 2019 23:31 IST
Indian cricketer Manish Pandey bats during a practice session
Indian cricketer Manish Pandey bats during a practice session(AFP)
         

India look to restructure and stabilise the middle-order, maybe it is time to lower the expectations. That is the lesson they can take from their World Cup experience. For the limited-overs team, the cycle heading into the mega event in England was spent searching for dashing batsmen who could complement the irrepressible top-order. But in the end, India landed at the tournament confused over who to fit where in the middle order. It became a case of musical chairs, and in desperation Dinesh Karthik, originally picked as a back-up ’keeper to MS Dhoni, was fielded as a specialist batsman.

When your top-order is packed with flamboyant players—Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli who all can take your breath away with stroke play and the ability to single-handedly snatch the game away from the opposition, it’s but natural some other players will suffer in comparison. By the looks of it, that is what seems to have happened with Ajinkya Rahane and Ambati Rayudu’s ODI careers.

Also Read: Azharuddin places request to MS Dhoni before announcing retirement

After 50 ODIs, Rayudu averaged 47 with 10 fifties and three hundreds. After 90 ODIs, Rahane averages 35 with 24 fifties and three hundreds. They had experience, and going by numbers too, they were a safe bet. But expectations were simply too high. The team management appeared to be looking for someone better.

Rahane and Rayudu offered solidity but were not in the Kohli-Sharma mould. They won’t intimidate, but will do the job effectively.

Ultimately, at the World Cup, KL Rahul batted at No 4 and Rahane looked on helplessly as he played for Hampshire in the County. The batting template adopted by KL Rahul—build-up slowly and anchor the innings—is similar to what we saw Rahane follow, but he was criticised.

Rayudu abruptly announced his retirement at 33, after he was ignored even when a second player was injured in the World Cup and the middle-order cried out for reinforcement.

Also Read: India tour of West Indies - 3 players who missed out on selection

As the new cycle begins post-World Cup, a fresh set of players are being tried. Among the choices, we again don’t have names that will excite you to the level of Kohli and Sharma. They have picked Shreyas Iyer and Manish Pandey, and both will be wary of expectations. They will be conscious how Kohli and Sharma can make any batsman look ordinary. At the World Cup, a stroke player like Rahul paled in comparison to Sharma.

Pandey and Iyer were among the batsmen who were tried out before the World Cup. The former underlined his potential with a superb ton against Australia in Sydney, the lone ODI India won during the five-match series in 2016. Thereafter the Karnataka batsman has been in and out of the team, struggling to match Kohli and Sharma, before the selectors finally discarded project-Pandey after the 2018 Asia Cup. He regained form in the second half of IPL and has consolidated his position with runs for India A, which he is captaining now in the West Indies. The unbeaten hundred in the third unofficial one-dayer proved timely for an India recall.

Same is the case with the 24-year-old Iyer. He has played six ODIs and averages a decent 42 with two fifties, and is having a good run on the A tour in the West Indies. Iyer came back into reckoning after an impressive showing in IPL while leading Delhi Capitals.

In their earlier stints, the two were left battling insecurities, and if the Indian team is looking at them as long-term prospects, they must be given time to settle down. The two will face stiff competition for a middle-order slot from KL Rahul and Kedar Jadhav. Chief selector MSK Prasad has promised to back them this time. “I am sure you have seen by the way we have selected the team that we are looking ahead.”

The two have been picked in the T20 squad too, with an eye on next year’s T20 World Cup, the next big assignment in world cricket.

Former India batsman, coach and selector Anshuman Gaekwad said the selectors and team management must show far-sightedness as far as a player’s potential is concerned and back him through and through. “In the last two-three years we have tried 13-14 players; this can’t happen. We should be able to judge who is there for the long term. You need them (Rahane) in places like England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, where conditions are tough to bat. You need to give the player assurance. It’s not that he has done badly. When you try out so many new faces, you forget the old ones.”

Gaekwad gave Rahul Dravid’s example. “When I was coach, the selectors were convinced Dravid was not a one-day player. It took me a long time to convince them and they relented when two sides had to be picked at the same time in 1998, for the Commonwealth Games and a one-day series in Toronto. Look where Dravid is now? He finished with 10,000 plus runs in ODIs. (In some ways) it is a similar case (with Rahane).

“It was the same with Mohammad Azharuddin. His first game was my last Test and he got three hundreds in a row. After that he continuously kept failing, but the selectors never doubted his ability.”

If Pandey and Iyer are hoping to blaze the turf like top-order men do, then they are also likely to trip up like Rahane and Rayudu.

When asked about Rahane after Sunday’s selection meeting, Prasad didn’t have a convincing answer. “He was there in the scheme of things but we have to reward performances of India ‘A’. That is why we haven’t included him.”

All eyes are now on Pandey and Iyer. They have the potential to do their job effectively. The Indian team management has to lower its expectations and let them be themselves.

First Published: Jul 22, 2019 23:31 IST

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