The top order needs to step up in the next two matches against Australia. Rayudu’s dismal form has reignited number four spot debate.    

 

NEW DELHI: With 2-1 up in the series despite the loss on Friday in Ranchi, India has by far been the better side than the Australian team sans Smith and Warner. But the host faces an uphill task of plugging the batting woes especially the top order’s slumping form that might give India a headache as the ICC World Cup beckons.

Not to discount Australia’s disciplined bowling and the ability to take the game deep by the batters as was evident in the second ODI, it’s the batsmen who have given their wickets to the opposition owing to poor shot selections. The loss has also been compounded by poor fielding effort on the ground. Bowlers have done a decent job on the lifeless pitches that are flat, and provide no assistance when it comes to bounce and swing.

Shikhar Dhawan, one of the arguably best pair to open ODI batting in world cricket at the moment, has not been the same purely in terms of timing the ball well. His patchy form tells us more about him not being in the right mindset than any technical glitches in his batting.

Consider this: In 2019, the opener has managed a mere 265 runs at an average of 26.50 in 11 innings he has played. The management would definitely like to see him end his run-drought, considering his smooth run in England in the past.

His partner Rohit Sharma has been hitting the ball well and probably just an innings away from that one big score. He got unlucky in the third ODI with umpires not providing him the benefit of doubt whereas in the second game, a poor shot selection got him back to the dugout.

When it finally seemed that India had found its number four batsman in Ambati Rayudu, the conundrum came back to bite in this series. Apart from a valiant 90 against New Zealand, Rayudu has only added 247 runs in 10 innings at an average of 30.87 to the team’s cause.

Although a consistent performance by MS Dhoni, Kedav Jadhav and Vijay Shankar has rekindled India’s hope lower down the order. For the number fourth position, it would be interesting to see if the captain entrusts faith in Rayudu again or plays the gamble of including batting all-rounders – Kedar and Shankar.

Dhoni could well fill in the position if Virat goes for that precarious balancing act by including more all-rounders than a specialist batsman in that position. Dhoni’s absence in the next two ODIs would be a golden opportunity for Rishabh Pant to come out on top and book his place for the World Cup flight, starting in England on May 30.

Amidst all the batting woes, what comes as a silver lining is the best batsman in the world, Virat Kohli. To use aphorism of “having the power of remaining consistent to attain consistency” will not be an understatement in his case. He scores his industrious centuries off his own volition, almost like a robot fitted with an artificial intelligence chip. So much so, that it’s almost difficult to recall the last time when he was not in form. He already has two hundreds in the series with two games left.

The 30-year-old has already over 500 runs this year. In Ranchi, he became the only fourth player to score 4,000 runs as captain, surpassing South African great AB de Villiers. While Kohli reached the feat in 63 innings, de Villiers had done it in 77 innings. With this, he joins the elite club of former Indian skippers – Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Mohammad Azharuddin and Sourav Ganguly.

But cricket is a team game and too much of reliance on him can be fatal for the team like the finals of the last Champions trophy in England. Emphasis must be put on individual’s game and clinical performance by the whole team. Asked if losing wickets in clumps bothers him, he rightly says, “We don’t want to see anymore collapses. We want partnerships that can get us going. It was a little hiccup in the middle, but we will regroup and come back strongly.”

The batting line-up will surely be tested in the fourth ODI as Australia seem to be gaining ground with an improved overall performance.

Bowling should not be much of a concern to Indian team ahead of World Cup apart from the fourth bowling option. Mohammed Shami has been bowling like an ODI specialist, thanks to the extra hard yards and length he has adjusted to in the shorter format. Pace was never a problem for him but with his variations now, he has added many more strings to his bow.

Jaspreet Bumrah bowls a 145-kmph yorker to the batsman, beats him and goes back to his run-up with a smile. Like Dhoni, there is this inexplicably charming nonchalance about him, very unlikely of a fast bowler that separates him from the rest. The challenge is to keep him fit and make sure he doesn’t sustain any injury during the IPL before the marquee event.

Although possibilities are that Bhuvneshwar Kumar may find it hard during the World Cup to make it for the better part with Bumrah-Shami doing exceptionally well. Chances are that the captain may decide to go with seam bowling all-rounder as the third bowling option. From team’s perspective, this might be a healthy headache to have.

Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal bowl well in tandem and it would be interesting to see if Kohli goes with both the bowlers or opt for the man with golden arm, Kedar Jadhav, so as to have another batting option in the line-up.

With World Cup in mind, India might be looking ahead but a win in this series would do wonders in terms of confidence. It’s the batting that has gone down to the wire and that too when the World Cup is just a couple of months away even as bowlers have managed to steady the boat so far. India must go for a win in the next two games of the series, scheduled in Mohali and Delhi.

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