India became the second team to qualify for the semifinal of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 after defeating Bangladesh by 28 runs at Edgbaston on Tuesday, July 2. Rohit Sharma’s magnificent century and Jasprit Bumrah’s brilliance with the ball masked an otherwise insipid display by the Men in Blue.
As we head into the knockout stage of the competition, Team India will be desperate to iron out the flaws that threaten to derail its World Cup campaign.
Here are the three prominent challenges facing the Indian cricket team ahead of its all-important World Cup semifinal.
India’s ‘No. 4’ woes
India’s misfiring middle order has proved to be Virat Kohli’s biggest headache in this tournament.
While India’s top order has been firing on all cylinders, the middle order batsmen have constantly flattered to deceive. Sharma has smashed four majestic centuries already and is currently the leading run-scorer this World Cup.
Kohli, who has been far from his charismatic best, has still managed to hit five half-centuries in seven innings. Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul have ably supported Sharma at the top of the innings and gotten India off to solid starts.
Beyond the top three, however, it is a tale of woe.
The elusive ‘No. 4’ spot has already had four occupants during the course of the tournament. Rahul occupied it in the opening two matches with mixed results. After Dhawan’s ill-fated injury ruled him out of the tournament, Rahul replaced him as India’s second opener, and Vijay Shankar took the No. 4 spot.
Shankar, however, has failed to impress, accumulating just 58 runs from three innings. Last week’s toe injury, which has ruled him out of the rest of the tournament, has compounded his misery.
The mercurial Rishabh Pant, drafted in the Indian squad as Shankar’s replacement, is the current No. 4. While he has looked good in the two innings he has played so far, Pant will need to adapt his game if the top order fails to fire in a knockout match.
The MS Dhoni conundrum
It is no exaggeration to say that MS Dhoni has had a cataclysmic effect on Indian cricket. He is widely regarded as one of best “finishers” in the history of limited overs format. Lauded by many for his impeccable reading of the game, Dhoni has guided India to countless wins in high-pressure situations over the last 15 years.
However, it is painfully obvious for all to see that the current version of Dhoni is well past his imperious best. His pragmatic approach towards batting has come under severe criticism from fans and pundits alike in this tournament.
Fans heavily berated Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav after their inexplicable cautious approach cost India the match against England on Sunday, June 30. Hardik Pandya’s elevation up the batting order, when quick runs are needed, is a scathing indictment of Dhoni’s current inability to “up the ante”.
The ability of the team management to find a solution to the MS Dhoni conundrum may hold the key to India’s aspirations of winning their third World Cup title.
The spin-pace equilibrium
It is no secret that Kohli heavily relies on his two wrist spinners, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, to provide him with crucial breakthroughs in the middle overs. While Chahal has, so far, managed to pick up 11 wickets from seven matches in this tournament, Yadav has only been able to collect five scalps from six matches.
It is the quicker bowlers who have shouldered most of the wicket-taking burden for India this World Cup. Both Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah have picked up 14 wickets each so far. Only five bowlers have picked up more than the Indian duo.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who missed three matches due to an injury, has performed admirably whenever he has been called upon. Even Pandya, India’s fifth bowling option, has picked up crucial wickets at regular intervals at a manageable economy rate.
The English conditions, in general, have favoured the quicker bowlers in this tournament, as evidenced by the absence of a spinner in the top 13 wicket-takers so far.
That’s why India dropped Yadav and brought in Kumar for the match against Bangladesh. And it certainly paid rich dividends.
When the Indian cricket team management finally sits down to pick its ideal XI for the semifinal, striking the right balance between pace and spin will be at the top of its agenda.
Rakshit Chopra is the founder of the fantasy sports platform The Choralist.