India's World Cup preparations faced a timely and perhaps necessary roadblock when the team was convincingly defeated by New Zealand in the fourth ODI of the five-match series in Hamilton on January 31.
The biggest event of the cricketing calendar in 2019 is the World Cup in England and every team in the world has gone into overdrive trying to find not only their best squad but also their best combination ahead of the quadrennial event.
India looked to be driving on a smooth highway to the World Cup as they easily navigated the Australian and Kiwi challenges until they met their match in the swinging ball. Suddenly, India's seemingly all-conquering juggernaut looked very beatable as they were bowled out for 92. The batting line-up, in the absence of Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni, fell like ninepins.
This collapse has thus raised a very pertinent question that was being swept under the proverbial carpet by the brilliance of a few men. India has, arguably, the best top three in the world in Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and captain Kohli. These three do the bulk of the scoring for the team – batting first and second.
In the last five years, since the 2013 Champions Trophy, India's top three has together or individually been the protagonists of most triumphs. Dhawan has scored over 5100 runs in this time with 15 centuries and 26 half-centuries. His opening partner, Rohit has scored nearly 5800 runs with 20 centuries and three double centuries in this time. Meanwhile, Kohli has scored a truckload of runs in the process shattering the record of becoming the quickest to 10,000 international runs scoring 27 centuries since India's victorious campaign in England.
In this period, only two games come to mind where none of the top three has scored runs yet India came out victorious. One of them was against England in January 2017 when MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh got centuries after India was reduced to 25-3. The other instance came in six months later when Akila Dananjaya ran through the Indian batting order. This time Bhuvneshwar Kumar forged a match-winning partnership with Dhoni and from 131-7, India chased down 231 to win the game.
India's middle order might have argued that they hardly get the opportunity to win matches for their country given how prolific their predecessors are in terms of run scoring. But to their detriment and consequently India's, whenever they have been given the opportunity, they have let themselves and the team down.
This is not to say they have been a failure for whenever Dhoni or the top-three has been around, the rest of the batsmen have provided able support and sometimes even taken over to finish games. But doing it when the others fail is another matter altogether.
Any team aiming to win the World Cup cannot go into such a long and challenging tournament with such gaping loopholes. These very loopholes have stopped India from going all the way in big tournaments in the last five years – whenever the top-order failed to set matches up, the middle-order looked hapless. Thus, despite being the most consistent team in ICC tournaments since 2013, India has only one trophy to boast.
A customary glance at the winners of the last four editions of the World Cup will show match-winners across the board and even on the bench. India's victorious team from 2011 had their man of the tournament batting at number 5, the captain at 6 and Suresh Raina at his peak at 7.
Hence, while India may be one of the favourites to win the World Cup, if they come up against difficult opposition, their middle-order has not done enough to tell the opposition – the match is not over. England, on the other hand, look more prepared for crisis situations.
But, this Indian team has made winning a habit. So when July swings by, do not be surprised if Kohli lifts the trophy Dhoni lifted on April 2, 2011.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Business Times, India.