India are yet to work out a "settled" middle order in ODIs and they do not have the "depth" in their lower order. With the World Cup a year away that might seem to be a matter of concern, but batting coach Sanjay Bangar said that India had enough time, options and "fluidity" in their batting order to plug any weakness.
India's middle-order woes were exposed at Lord's on Saturday, as the second half of their innings was subdued and they stuttered to a virtual standstill in the final hour. It was the first instance since the semi-finals of the 2011 World Cup that India failed hit a single six in an ODI. India didn't score more than 10 runs in an over during in the final 15 overs, and only 42 runs came off the last 10, which is the fewest scored by India in the last decade.
The lack of intent did not sit well with the Indian fans at Lord's. They did not spare MS Dhoni, who was booed at various times during an innings where he ran out of partners and eventually lost rhythm. Although it would be easy to blame Dhoni, you could understand why he did not want to press the accelerator with the other members of India's middle order - KL Rahul, Suresh Raina and Hardik Pandya - found wanting.
Bangar said that India were not sweating because they had enough options to work out a World Cup middle order. Ambati Rayudu, Manish Pandey and Ajinkya Rahane could all still be viable options if the current occupants did not make an impact. Rayudu failed the yo-yo fitness test and Raina was called up as his replacement. Pandey and Rahane have been tried at different times in the past, but left behind more questions than positive impressions.
Although India have not tried it yet, one way the middle order could be strengthened would involve pushing Rahul to No. 3 and having Virat Kohli bat at four. That way India can retain their authority in the top order while having their best batsman at the controls in the second half of the innings. This way Kohli would not only act as a cushion for the top order, as he showed during the T20s in Ireland and England, but also ease the pressure on Dhoni, who can play with more freedom at Nos. 5 or 6.
But India are not ready yet to change the default settings. "We did change a bit [the batting order], certainly in the T20 format where KL played at three and Virat batted at four," Bangar said in Leeds on the eve of the final match of the ODI series and the limited-overs leg of their tour. "But looking at this series and the performances that Virat has got at No. 3, especially in the last series when he scored three hundreds against South Africa in five games [we won't alter the batting order]."
Bangar, though, did not rule out a change of strategy, keeping in mind India have 21 matches before the World Cup, good enough time to figure out a solution. "We are looking at, in terms of the games remaining, where we could look at settling the middle-order slots. We will see as to players available, the fitness of the players. So a lot of spots are open. The good thing about that is the bench strength we have in a Rayudu, or a Manish Pandey or Ajinkya Rahane. There are enough spots for each and every eventuality that we might face leading up to the World Cup."
Bangar also defended Dhoni and said that there was nothing else India's most senior and experienced batsman could have done. "When the team loses four wickets, the lower order - at least with the combination we are playing at the moment - we do not really have the depth at Nos. 8, 9, 10 wherein the batsman at Nos. 6 or 7 could play with that sort of a freedom. It was purely because of that that we kept on losing the wickets and the set batsmen could not really exploit [the situation].
"He [Dhoni] was just hoping that somebody would stick with him. There was a chance when he and Suresh were batting together, we were just hoping they could bat through till the 40th over and they could take the bowlers on. But every time he looked to do that he first lost Raina and then he lost Hardik so there wasn't too much batting to follow for him to play in the usual fashion that he does."
Bangar felt that some of the India batsmen, like Raina, who featured in just one format and have come back to international fold after a while, would need more time to settle down. Bangar said that it was also difficult for the middle-order batsmen, who were often padded up but did not have much to do as all the good work had been already done by the top order, which has played a dominant role in Indian victories in the last few years.
"The way our top order is batting, generally our middle order hasn't got the number of opportunities that you would expect because the top order does the bulk of the scoring. And at times the middle order have to straightaway walk into a game situation. Not all of the players are playing all formats of the game. You also have to give some weightage to do that - coming back straight to international cricket, and doing the kind of things that are expected of you, especially in this format. So the continuity factor also plays a part, but we are trying to balance each and everything that we could possibly do."