India batting thin on experience
Towards the middle of India's training session on Monday, the team's media manager carried a life-size foam dummy into the open net at the middle of the National Cricket Academy ground. Running in off a short run-up, Bhuvneshwar Kumar began bowling to the dummy, designed to look like a right-handed batsman at the highest point of his backlift. Gradually, as Bhuvneshwar increased the length of his run-up, Mohammad Shami and Ishwar Pandey joined him. All of them attacked the blockhole.
While India's bowlers tried out this new method of working on an old weakness, fielding coach Trevor Penney aimed flat, hard catches at Ambati Rayudu, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. Meanwhile, under a shamiana in one corner of the training area, Dinesh Karthik took his pads off.
"Who's that guy?" a local journalist asked, pointing at the batsman who had replaced Karthik at the nets.
That guy was Stuart Binny, and he might not have been the only unfamiliar figure in the team for that particular journalist. This was an India ODI team without MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh. Poor form over the last year or so had cost first Yuvraj and then Raina their places. Dhoni's side strain, on top of that, had now left India needing to assemble an entirely new-look middle order for the Asia Cup. On Tuesday, when he was asked about this, Karthik said India had enough experienced players to cope.
"I've been around the scene for some time," Karthik said. "Given the opportunity, I will try and use whatever little experience I've had and bat to the best of my ability. Having said that quite a few guys have played 100 games, which is a lot of experience now. They have been playing now for a year or two. They have been given a good run. Everybody will pull in their experience whatever little that we have, go out there and give it our best shot."
Although only two members of India's squad have played 100 ODIs - Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma - it is true that most of the players in the squad have had a decent run of games over the last year. The only issue, however, is that all of the inexperience is concentrated in one area - the middle order.
Karthik has played 67 ODIs, but has played in the middle order in only 30 of them. Ajinkya Rahane has played 23 ODIs, but has batted lower than No. 3 only five times; in those five innings, he averages 11.20. Cheteshwar Pujara has played two ODIs, both as opener. Ambati Rayudu has played six ODIs, of which four were against Zimbabwe. Stuart Binny has played one ODI, and hasn't yet had a chance to bat.
Ideally, India would want three of those five - Karthik and two others - to slot in at Nos. 4, 5 and 6 when India start their Asia Cup campaign. That would leave the top three undisturbed. But that simple solution might not work in India's best interests, because the players in that group - Pujara and Rahane, certainly - aren't necessarily suited to starting their innings with less than 10 overs remaining.
It might mean either Rohit Sharma or Virat Kohli having to move to No. 4. Of those two options, shifting Kohli down one spot will probably make less of a dent up the order than disturbing the opening combination. Kohli, in fact, has an even better average at No. 4 than at No. 3, and almost the same strike rate. Rohit, on the other hand, averages 44.19 as opener and 31.43 elsewhere. In any case, both of them might have to bat differently, with the knowledge that Dhoni won't be around down the order.
More might be asked of Ravindra Jadeja too. In New Zealand, he showed there is plenty of latent potential in his batting, when he cracked quickfire unbeaten 60s in successive matches. Jadeja's position in the line-up is unlikely to change for this tournament, but without Dhoni, the batting side of his role might gain extra emphasis.
It isn't easy replacing someone who's a middle-overs innings-builder, death-overs destroyer and the calmest finisher in the game, all rolled into one. India's best option of doing that might be to do it collectively.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo