Indian cricket has been so obsessed with its No. 4 spot for a few years now that another important issue in its batting line-up has gone somewhat unnoticed: the lower-middle order. While Shreyas Iyer tries to cement the No. 4 spot, the departure of MS Dhoni, the wait for Rishabh Pant to find his groove in ODIs, over-reliance on the top order, and Hardik Pandya's absence have all led to India not having the necessary muscle at No. 6 and lower.
Imagine a situation where India are 200 for 4 after 35 overs and the top three have been dismissed. Which batsman can India rely on right now to carry the lower order till the last five overs? Or to do the power-hitting in the end? Kedar Jadhav may fit in the first slot but he hasn't scored quickly enough to fulfil the second criteria of late.
India have played five completed ODIs since the World Cup - all against West Indies - and only in one of them were they not led by their top order: the first ODI of the home series in Chennai last month. In the others, Kohli scored two hundreds, openers Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul notched hundreds in Visakhapatnam, and in the last one, Sharma, Rahul and Kohli all scored half-centuries. India won all these games except the one in Chennai, which exposed the over-reliance on the top order.
The lower order weakness has been troubling India for over a year now. The combined strike rate of India's No. 6 and below since January 2019 reads 91.47, sixth on the list below Pakistan (104.95), Australia (104.64), West Indies (96.57), England (96.16) and New Zealand (95.68). The bulk of the scoring for India's lower order in this period was done by Jadhav and Ravindra Jadeja, but they have not been among the quickest.
Among batsmen who have played at least ten innings at No. 6 or lower in the same period, Jadhav's strike rate ranks 14th, at 91.57. In comparison, Alex Carey (106.22), Imad Wasim (131.11) and Jimmy Neesham (109.27) - from teams whose lower-middle orders have done better than India's - have scored faster than Jadhav, while also averaging better than him. Jadhav, nearly 35, is also unlikely to be around for the next World Cup, which might increase the responsibility on Pandya once he is back from injury.
India play ODIs against Australia on three grounds - Mumbai, Rajkot and Bengaluru - with a mix of flat pitches and short boundaries, which Australia are likely to make the most of with Carey and Ashton Turner, whose unbeaten 84 off 43 to help Australia chase down 359 in Mohali last year wouldn't have faded from Indian memories. In case India's top order does not do the job in the coming days, they will desperately need Jadhav and Jadeja to step up and lead the tail in the end overs, while also scoring quickly.
When asked on Sunday who India's lower-order power-hitters could be in Pandya's absence, and if there was a weakness there, batting coach Vikram Rathour said they had "enough options".
"It's not a weakness, I think. Just a few days back we scored about 383 (387)," Rathour said, referring to the second ODI against West Indies in which Sharma and Rahul had scored centuries. "We've been scoring runs, our batters have done well, Shreyas [Iyer] is batting really well, Pant has played a couple of useful innings, so I don't see an issue there. [The] top three are batting well and scoring heavily, that's again a good problem to have. But I don't see any issue with our lower order now, we have enough options."
Last year, India lost the five-match series to Australia despite being 2-0 up. Their lower-order problems started in the second ODI of that series. With Kohli's century, India were 171 for 4 in the 33rd over but he ran out of partners and they were bowled out for 250. India somehow won that game even though Australia needed 33 from 34 with five wickets in hand.
In the next game, India were chasing 314 and Kohli scored another century but this time no batsman from the middle and lower order scored over 35 and India were bowled out again, for 281. In the decider, India were chasing a modest 273 and this time only Sharma fired from the top order. Jadhav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar scored 44 and 46 respectively from 132 for 6, which could only take India to 237 as they were all out again.
These issues have also led to India deepening the batting line-up, which stopped them from playing two trump cards - Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal - together in any of the recent ODIs against West Indies, slotting in Kumar or Shardul Thakur at No. 8 for those extra runs.
In that loss in Chennai, India even took the risk of giving Shivam Dube a debut at No. 8, trying to squeeze a combined 20 overs out of Jadhav, Jadeja and Dube. But that backfired as Shai Hope and Shimron Hetmyer scored centuries to canter to the target of 288 with more than two overs to spare.
In the Australia series beginning on Tuesday, India's batting will also face a much stronger bowling line-up compared to West Indies'. Australia are bringing Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, along with an in-form spinner in Adam Zampa. Against a tougher opposition, India's lower order has its work cut out, before facing New Zealand in their backyard.
With stats inputs from Shiva Jayaraman
Vishal Dikshit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo