Virat Kohli has lower order batting woes despite ODI series win vs South Africa
While the top three are as good as you'll get in international cricket, India are yet to find an answer to its lower-order woes even after Kohli & Co's historic feat in SA
By winning the ODI series in South Africa, Virat Kohli's Indian team has created history. While the scoreline is indicating India's dominance, it's not doing justice to the manner in which India has steamrolled the hosts. The absence of Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, AB de Villiers and Chris Morris at different stages of the series has taken a little sheen from India's triumph, but it'll be grossly unfair on the Indian team if credit wasn't given where it's due. Here are the few things that made India an enviable ODI side and the question it must answer.
Cream is at the top
The top three batsmen - Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Kohli, script India's success story in the fifty-over format. The two openers got together in the 2013 edition of the Champions Trophy and haven't looked back since then. For the first half of their association, it was Rohit who would take charge and Dhawan would bide time. But lately, the roles have changed, for the southpaw has grown in stature in this format. While Dhawan has a middling Test and T20 career, he's a run away match-winner in the ODI. In fact, his numbers in the ICC events would overshadow the brilliance of Kohli too.
Perhaps, it's time to draw the line in the sand and treat him as a one-day specialist, for his frequent flirtations with the longest format are simply not working overseas, and there's a real danger of losing him as a ODI match-winner also, if he's asked to remodel his game to suit the demands of Test cricket. Rohit, on the other hand, got the opportunity to open in ODI as a last-ditch effort to revive his career, and that turned out to be a masterstroke. He's got the game and the temperament to handle the new white ball, bat deep into the innings and finish with a flourish that can't be matched by many in the world.
Like Dhawan, there's a constant attempt to fit him into the Test side too. But like Dhawan, it hasn't worked thus far. The only difference is that he's unlikely to become a lesser limited-overs player even if tried to change his game to suit the longer format. It's a rarity that both of them fail in the same game and whenever one of them falls, Kohli takes over.
Kohli's game has reached such heights that he's no longer competing with the bowlers but with himself. In the third ODI, he decided to play in a lower gear and ran over a 100 runs in his 160. In the fourth ODI, he decided to take on the same bowlers and did it without breaking a sweat. Currently, he's the most complete batsman in the world.
If the Champions Trophy in 2013 was a watershed event for the two openers, its 2017 edition proved to be the beginning of a new era of spinners. Both R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja were a part of India's limited-over scheme of things for years but their inability to pick wickets in the middle-overs tempted the team management/selectors to change their tactic. Out went the two finger spinners and in came the two wrist-spinners in Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.
Spin to win
While T20 cricket has added a lot of dynamism to batting, it's also taken away batsmen's penchant of looking for the spin from the hand. Modern day batsmen, including most Asian batsmen, have stopped looking for signs of variations at the point of release, which in turn has handed over a huge advantage to the leggies.
Chahal honed his craft while playing for Royal Challengers Bangalore on bowler's graveyard in Chinnaswamy stadium. Playing the IPL on such a high scoring ground inculcated the right work ethics in Chahal, for he realised that the only way to minimise damage is taking wickets.
So, instead of finding way like bowling quicker to stem the run-flow, he kept on flighting the ball outside the reach of the batsmen. His key to success is the line he bowls. Kuldeep, on the other hand, is one of the rare commodities in international cricket i.e. a left-arm leg spinner. Add to that his natural length and speed, a lot slower and fuller, and he becomes a wicket-taker. These two bowlers scripted India's win in SA.
Area of concern
While India's top three are as good as you'd get in international cricket, India is yet to find an answer to its lower-order woes. Thrice in three innings, India, courtesy the top-3, reached the 170-run mark by the 30-over stage but on all three occasions, they couldn't finish strongly. The fact that the innings isn't taking off despite the solid start should cause serious concern.
In the last 18 months, India's tried more players at No. 4 than any other team in the world and they added Rahane's name to that list for this series. Rahane started the series well but his performances petered away as the series progressed. Add to the No. 4 conundrum, Hardik Pandya is boiling hot and cold too often. His only innings of note was the first innings he played on this tour (the first innings of the first Test) and that's putting MS Dhoni in the spotlight more often.
While Dhoni has figured out a way to stay put, he's struggling to get going even after spending some time on the crease. ODI innings should build towards a crescendo but that's rarely happening with India. Mostly, the top three paper over the cracks but this problem might cost India a World Cup knockout game.
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