India are one of the best ODI sides in the world. That is clear from the results: they reached the semi-final of the last World Cup, final of the Champions Trophy, and only recently had their nine-series winning streak in bilateral ODI cricket ended. However, they still don't know what their best middle order is, which, after the introduction of wristspinners post last year's Champions Trophy, seems to be the only glaring weakness in the ODI set-up.
Since 2015, India have used 11 different batsmen at No. 4 in 62 games. By extension, the whole middle-order combination and dynamic is bound to keep changing. Fair to say India are struggling to identify the ideal middle order.
One of the possible reasons for short ropes is that India seem to be looking for some bowling insurance should one of the five go for a plenty. That is perhaps why Suresh Raina kept getting selected ahead of Dinesh Karthik in England. India just don't have a real part-timer in the top six except Kedar Jadhav. Even Rohit Sharma doesn't bowl nowadays. Whether this fascination with a part-timer is justified or not is up for debate.
Some of those on the musical chairs in this middle order come into the side based on their IPL performances. However, in the IPL they mostly bat at the top of the order. They rarely get to play the domestic one-dayers, but not all of them bat in the middle order for their state side either. Only one of the top-five middle-order run-getters in Vijay Hazare over the last two years has had some kind of a chance: Dinesh Karthik. That puts more premium on IPL performances, which is how Ambati Rayudu and Suresh Raina came back this year. Even from the IPL, the middle-order performers haven't got get a decent run: Rishabh Pant, Karthik, MS Dhoni, Manish Pandey and Krunal Pandya are the five highest run-getters in the middle order in the last two IPLs.
Another reason why top-order performers in domestic cricket get shifted to middle order in international cricket is that the top order in the India team is packed. And they are also doing most of the heavy lifting too. They are scoring more than any other top order in the world.
Here's how every India ODI batsman has fared since World Cup 2015, not counting matches against Zimbabwe.
There is only one Indian in the top-25 run-getters in the middle order since World Cup. The problem is, it is Dhoni, who has tried batting at 4 and 5 a fair bit and is now back to No. 6. India have not been able to pin his role: dasher in the lower middle order or accumulator at 4. He is nowhere near top-10 strike rates for Nos 6 and 7 nor is he in the top-10 averages for Nos 4 and 5.
India might have finally been tempted to give a settled line-up a fair run but then Jadhav, who manages the rare double of high average and strike rate - 41 and 109 since World Cup 2015, began to drop out with hamstring injuries.
In big tournaments or series India's middle order rarely get to do much, and then one fine day, in a crucial game, the top order collapses or they come in in the 35th over with eight an over required and they don't seem to know how to handle those situations. Is it because England's middle order inspires more confidence that their top order can score more freely or is it because India's top order is a tad conservative that they go slow?
Is the middle order putting extra pressure on the top order or is the time taken by them giving the middle order less time? There was a time when India were paying the price for the top order not going absolutely ballistic when batting first on flat tracks - like in Australia in early 2016 - but their wristspinners have sort of made up for it. The middle-order breakdown still keeps cropping up every now and then.