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Match Analysis

Middle-order masterclass hides troubles at the top

In an otherwise strong campaign, India will be wary of the fact that their openers have struggled to come out firing and are time and again being bailed out by others down the order

On Saturday, Eden Park turned into New Delhi or Mohali, with an IPL match being played well into the night. The ground was not quite full, but the noise was the unmistakable sound of Indian fans at high volume backed by bangra pop and Bollywood.
A fortnight ago though, the perfect storm had broken over Eden Park when New Zealand took on Australia and windowpanes had shattered around the neighbourhood. Saturday night was not half bad either, with 30,000 Indian expats in the house as India chased down their highest World Cup score in beating Zimbabwe by six wickets.
The partnership between Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni gift-wrapped the final leg of India's seamless progress in what is the their best ever performance at a World Cup going into the knockouts. The game ended with sounds, lights and dazzle; Dhoni and Raina opened up shoulders and stances, cleared their front legs and tried to reach all parts of the ground.
Naturally, a Dhoni six had to end it. He and Raina had put up 196 runs in 26 overs, coming together in the 23rd over and first pushing, then racing through the game. Raina's first World Cup century was marked by scratchiness at the start, a dropped catch in the middle, and a shepherding through the testy parts by Dhoni, who must play at such a sober pace that he is virtually last man on the bridge at No. 6.
Dhoni described his frequent conversation with Raina afterwards; "I just have to ask him to go from fifth gear to third gear as there was not really any batsmen after us."
Over the last 10 years, it should surprise no one that it is these two, ax man and flaky stylist, who have formed India's most prolific ODI partnership in terms of runs.
They have scored 3480 runs together at 62.14, with nine century stands. This was a tighter World Cup game than the other slightly hairy chase India had against West Indies, with Dhoni coming in the 18th over with 105 to get. Here, he walked in during the 23rd, marshaling India's chase as usual, ending with eight balls to spare. It is the closest India have gone to the very end of a match in this tournament and once again, they came out on the winning side.
Dhoni was satisfied: "It couldn't have been better. If you're playing the last game of the league stage, and if you get an easy win, you don't get a lot out of that game. What was good was the spinners were put under pressure, and also we lost quick wickets initially, and that actually put our middle and lower middle order under pressure, so we gained a lot out of it."
Now to the pointy stuff. After teams get repeatedly get clobbered, their captains are asked about 'positives' they may have extricated from the debris. When teams get to where are India are at this World Cup, with a smooth factory-line efficiency, the general tone of the, (thank you, KP) "mood hoovers" is 'negatives', 'worries', and 'areas of improvement'. While Dhoni was content about the spinners being pushed with the slog overs costing India 80 off the last 10, there is another slightly dodgy issue, which is central to the Indian top order turning up fully switched on at the business end of the event.
Over the next two weeks, the attacks India are about to face, all things going well, will not comprise the combined strengths of UAE and Ireland. They will pose more questions than Zimbabwe's effort and energy did today. India's opening stand at the World Cup so far, has been far from steady or confidence-inducing. Outside an opening partnership of 174 against Ireland - India's highest opening stand in the World Cup - in five innings, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have managed just 104 runs with a highest stand of 35.
In this World Cup, the Dhawan-Rohit partnership has been a minimum of a modicum. Other than Ireland, together they have traveled without conviction. They have neither blitzed the first 10 overs and thrown the opposition's bowling into disarray, nor been able to play clatter along into the mid-innings and give any free-hitters following them a good tilt in the last 15 overs.
The top-order combination which, in the averages taken over a ten-year period (minimum of 1000 runs), has done the best and remains a part of the current team, is in fact Dhawan and Ajinkya Rahane with 1106 runs at 69.12. In terms of pure average, Dhoni and Gambhir head the list with 1270 runs at 74.7. India may have done themselves no favours by not tinkering or fidegeting around with options in the lighter games. They may yet still win the thing, but the openers' numbers remain unpleasant.
Dhoni had a somewhat mystifying answer to this dilemma, saying that in many cases when India were chasing, the opposition had "not scored too many runs" and therefore the openers "can't score the same number of runs." He did try to clarify though that it was India's start that had been important. That start has been as follows: 34, 9, 29, 11, 174, 11. Exclude that Ireland game, and all the importance the start appears to contain is that Dhawan and Rohit simply turned up together.
The defence for Rohit, whose World Cups scores are 15, 0, 57*, 7, 64 and 16, was stout.
"I feel Rohit has batted really well so far. He looks quite calm and composed, and at the same time he's playing the shots really well," Dhoni said. "That's something that's a key factor. It's not always about the runs. We have seen batsmen who are playing really well but they have not scored runs, and all of a sudden you see a game where they score really big and they come back. So it's not really being out of form. What's important is to spend time in the middle, and I think Rohit has done enough of that."
The group stages are now done with, and India find themselves once again in the middle, where the white light of the knockouts will be training on them with greater intensity than they have over the last month. India's World Cup will now start over, and the openers have a chance to wipe a fairly grubby slate clean.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo