London: In the 2017 Champions Trophy (hosted in England), three of the top-five run-getters were Indian names. Shikhar Dhawan (338 runs in five matches) finished top, followed by Rohit Sharma (304 runs in five matches), and Virat Kohli (258 runs in five matches) was fifth on the list. 

Further, the three of them totalled 900 runs out of a total 1,256 runs India scored in that tournament which was a dress rehearsal for the upcoming 2019 ODI World Cup. That’s a staggering 71% runs coming from the top three in a short span of three weeks.

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Why is this statistic important?

In the past two years since that Champions Trophy, India have featured in 54 ODIs across Australia, South Africa, West Indies, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, England, and at home of course. During this time period, they have scored 13,531 runs in all. 

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How have the top-three fared?

Dhawan has scored 1,927 runs in 47 games in this interim. Sharma has scored 2,575 runs in 48 matches while Kohli has scored 2,830 runs in 48 matches. That is a total of 7,332 runs among the three of them – 54% of all ODI runs scored by Indian batsmen in the last two years. Just like that previous figure of 71%, this is a staggering statistic too because it is spread out consistently over a longer time period. 

The underlying point herein is simple. India’s batting is too dependent on its top-order. The last image of that 2017 Champions Trophy is how Mohammad Amir ripped apart the same Indian top-order in the final. With pace and movement, he dismissed all three of them for a mere 21 runs, and India folded for 158 in a 339-run chase against arch rivals Pakistan. 

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On Saturday (May 25) then, it was almost déjà vu. Two years on, another left-arm pacer wreaked havoc at the same ground. Trent Boult trapped Sharma lbw and sent back Dhawan caught behind. Kohli was bowled off Colin de Grandhomme, the ball jagging back in between bat and pad to uproot his off-stump. On a lively Oval wicket, India’s worst fears were realised in the very first game of this English summer. 

Thankfully, it was only a warm-up game. Playing together in the one-day format for the first time in 72 days, perhaps they were rusty. Or maybe the conditions were too different from what was anticipated. Ravindra Jadeja, who scored an attacking half-century in the lower order, spoke about the wicket having more grass than anticipated. Maybe, going ahead in the tournament, conditions will be different? 

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“Early wickets do damage to any batting side. It was nice to see the ball swinging in the morning,” said Boult after the game. When this writer asked if the pacer expected similar assistance throughout the tournament, Boult replied, “I think we will see quite a few different surfaces. In some of the warm-up games at other venues, there are flatter and slower surfaces on offer. So the challenge will be to adjust quickly as per conditions in every different game.” 

The ODI World Cup had last come to England in 1999. Three years prior to that, the world order had been reshaped by Sanath Jayasuriya’s unabashed hitting style. Everyone had copied it, but for that 1999 tournament, it was tweaked keeping in mind conditions on offer. Teams concentrated on saving early wickets and going full hammer at the end. So much so, Lance Klusener’s charge for South Africa in the death overs won him Man-of-the-tournament award. 

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That strategy won’t be dusted off the shelf this time around precisely because conditions – as Boult said – will differ from venue to venue. Yet, that strategy will have to play out in part. The English weather is unpredictable and swing will be a factor at 10.30 am starts, especially on partially green tops. 

Any team that suffers early losses must have solid back up in the middle order and enough hitting muscle in the lower order to post a defendable score. It won’t necessarily be 300-plus, and surely it won’t be 180-odd that India were bowled out for on Saturday. 

This points to the other glaring weakness in the Indian line-up. It starts with number four, of course. In limited chances, KL Rahul failed at that spot in Sri Lanka (2017) and then in England (2018). How is he still batting at number four, even in a warm-up? Sure, Vijay Shankar was injured but Dinesh Karthik – who had a decent run at number four in autumn 2017 –could have been the other option. Even he threw away his wicket with some shocking shot selection though. 

The problem in the middle order becomes twofold, when you realise that Hardik Pandya is the only true power-hitter available. Kedar Jadhav is more a pinch-hitter who knows how to finish an innings. MS Dhoni, for all his IPL exploits, isn’t the same force in international cricket. So, from where will this Indian batting line-up channel its aggression in case they need to accelerate, or indeed rebuild and push aggressively towards the end as was the case on Saturday. 

It brings to light what Indian coach Ravi Shastri told this writer in February — ‘Horses for courses’ and perhaps the need for Kohli to bat at number four. Back in 1999, Sachin Tendulkar was demoted to number four in the garb of protecting the side’s ‘best batsman’. It didn’t work – India didn’t win the World Cup that year. 

But Saturday’s loss does make the case for Kohli to bat at number four whenever team India faces Oval-like conditions in this tournament. During his short stay, he was full of intent, creaming boundaries through the cover region, until one nipped back in to rock his stumps. Until then, he was batting on a different pitch to everyone. 

What if batting later in the innings had prolonged his innings? Loss to New Zealand in this inconsequential warm-up thus provided some food for thought. Who will bat at number three, then, is another headache though.