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Analysis

Blunt in the middle - India have a bowling problem to solve

India were in winning positions in the first two ODIs in Bangladesh, but their second-string bowling attack could not land that knockout punch

Vishal Dikshit
Vishal Dikshit
08-Dec-2022
Shardul Thakur is India's top wicket-taker in the middle overs since 2020, but he was wicketless on Wednesday  •  AFP via Getty Images

Shardul Thakur is India's top wicket-taker in the middle overs since 2020, but he was wicketless on Wednesday  •  AFP via Getty Images

India aren't having a great end to 2022. They've suffered a spate of injuries, the loss in the T20 World Cup semi-final, the sudden removal of the entire selection panel, and now an ODI series defeat in Bangladesh to follow the one in New Zealand, with the 2023 World Cup less than a year away.
While it's true that India are trying out a massive pool of players, the manner of their defeats in Bangladesh will rankle, because their inexperienced bowling attack had put them on the verge of victory in the first two ODIs despite losing the toss in both of them.
Defending just 186 in the series opener, India had reduced the hosts to 136 for 9 before Mehidy Hasan Miraz scripted a miraculous one-wicket victory. Three days later, India had Bangladesh 69 for 6 batting first but Mehidy thwarted them again with a sensational 100 off 83 balls, becoming only the second batter to score a century at No. 8 in ODIs.
The twin failures may not have exposed India's strategies per se because they are far from full strength with Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ravindra Jadeja injured, but it is a wake-up call as their focus shifts from T20Is to ODIs ahead of next year's World Cup. Do India have enough attacking options through the middle overs? The pitches for the World Cup at home could be unforgiving for bowlers during the middle overs as conditions ease out like they did in Dhaka this week, which puts the onus on bowling teams even more to try and break partnerships.
That's what happened in the second ODI after the initial swing and seam movement had subsided, and Mehidy and Mahmudullah started playing with more ease, breaking the record for Bangladesh's highest partnership against India. Their seventh-wicket stand of 148 began in 20th over and ended only in the 47th.
The middle overs of ODIs - overs 11 to 40 - have been an issue for India for a while. They have the highest economy rate in that phase since the start of 2020 - 5.56, compared to New Zealand's 4.92 and Australia's 5.04. Even for ODIs at home in the same period, India's economy of 5.76 in the middle overs is only better than England and South Africa. While England may have the batting firepower to make up for any extra runs conceded, the same can't be said for India or most other teams at the moment.
After the loss in the second ODI on Wednesday, India's captain Rohit Sharma said that their bowling in the middle overs was an issue they needed to address, and they needed to do it quickly.
"From 70 for 6, allowing them to get 270-odd was not a great effort from our bowlers," Rohit said after the game. "We started off really well, and the middle overs and the back end is something that is hurting a little bit. That happened in the first game and today as well. It's something we need to realise quickly because we don't have too much time [before the next World Cup], we need to focus on what we need to do as individuals and give them that specific role to come out and do it."
After the tour of Bangladesh, India have three ODI series at home (T20Is and Tests too) against Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Australia starting in January and ending before the IPL. These nine ODIs - three against each team - are an opportunity to try out and identify their best bowlers for the middle overs in home conditions, and subsequently get them ready for the World Cup.
Since 2020, India's top wicket-takers in the middle overs have been Shardul Thakur (26 wickets at 25.15 apiece), Yuzvendra Chahal (22 at 32.31 apiece), Kuldeep Yadav (17 at 47), Prasidh Krishna (16 at 22.31) and Washington Sundar (10 at 22.20). Thakur has been a regular in the ODI squad of late, while Chahal is the front-runner among the spinners, but are India also seriously considering Kuldeep Yadav given he did not play a match on the tour of New Zealand and was left out of the ODI squad in Bangladesh? Washington is another promising option emerging for the spin-allrounder's spot along with Jadeja and Axar Patel.
When you look at India's bowlers with the best economy rates in the middle overs of ODIs since 2020, Mohammed Siraj (4.89) leads the way followed by Prasidh (5.14), Avesh Khan (5.26), Bumrah (5.34) and Bhuvneshwar Kumar (5.47). Avesh has now fallen behind in the pecking order and Bhuvneshwar has hardly played ODIs this year, which leaves Siraj and Prasidh, who is currently injured, as the top pace options in the middle overs.
Coach Rahul Dravid rued the fact that India have been plagued with injuries of late but is hopeful that he will have a fully-fit contingent to pick from in the New Year. And when the likes of Jadeja, Shami, Prasidh and Bumrah return to fitness, India will have plenty of options to fine tune their best combination.
"Hopefully from January onwards we should have - depending on injuries - a full squad around and something that we'll certainly look at," Dravid said after the series defeat in Bangladesh. "The opportunity to see how we can take wickets in the middle, I thought we did well today but there was a phase where we let that partnership build. So good learnings for us in these games, especially in these kinds of conditions which Bangladesh is used to and plays very well in. Obviously for us, once we're able to select from our full squad in January, hopefully we can look to address all these issues."
India's second-string attack have one more game in Bangladesh to show off what they can do, before the competition for places heats up early next year.

Vishal Dikshit is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo