Anirudh Suresh
31 Aug 2023 | 10:23 AM

Bowlers’ incapability with the bat could stop India from fielding their strongest attack

It seems almost a given that the Men in Blue will sacrifice some extra juice in the bowling to get that much more assurance down the order with the bat

In an ideal world, India’s bowling attack for the World Cup will look as follows: Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj/Prasidh Krishna and Kuldeep Yadav, with Ravindra Jadeja and Hardik Pandya complementing the four specialists. 

The attack above is by far the most potent, lethal and balanced one India can put out; all things considered, it will make them a serious threat with the ball in hand. 

But if India are to field the aforementioned attack, they will need to make a huge trade-off: sacrifice lower-order batting. 

Will that be too big a risk, or should India simply play their best bowlers and not care about balance? And, most importantly, what do the global trends suggest India should do? 

We’ll explore all that and more over the course of this piece.

Why India might not be able to play their best attack (Bumrah, Shami, Siraj/Prasidh and Kuldeep)

Bumrah, Shami, Siraj, Prasidh and Kuldeep are all x-factor bowlers capable of winning games single-handedly, but that’s not the only thing they have in common: all five individuals are very ordinary with the bat in hand.

Among the five, Kuldeep is the only player who averages more than 10 in List A cricket. And even he has looked out of his depth as a batter in international cricket, with his struggles most recently on display against West Indies earlier this month. 

So while the group above would make a formidable quartet with the ball, fielding them together will mean paper-thin depth on the batting front, with Kuldeep likely to walk in at No.8.

Different format, but the West Indies T20Is laid bare the issues of such a tactic. Having ‘four No.11s'  not only made life easier for the opposition, but also forced the middle-order batters to play within themselves in an attempt to take the game deep. In all, it seemed to restrict the batting potential of the side.

Which brings us to the next point.

Are India likely to go with a Bumrah-Shami-Siraj-Kuldeep attack?

Fielding four specialist bowlers who all are No.11s with the bat — No.10s at best — is a huge risk, but it’s something India have anyway not done of late.

India have played 36 ODIs since the start of 2022 and, in that, Shardul Thakur has been the side’s designated No.8 in 47.2% of the games (17/36). 

In fact, Thakur has batted at No.8 at least eight more times than any other Indian batter since 2022, with Deepak Chahar (3) the only other player to bat more than twice in that position.

Both Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid have been vocal about wanting ‘batting depth’ and so clearly, the fact of Shardul having played the joint second-most games of any Indian since the start of 2022 (23, behind Shubman Gill’s 24) suggests that India are unlikely to field what on paper seems like their strongest bowling attack (in terms of variety, if nothing else), which is Bumrah, Shami, Siraj/Prasidh and Kuldeep.

We know such a move, on paper at least, strengthens the batting, but how much does it weaken the bowling, if indeed it does?

Shardul vs Shami, Siraj and Prasidh: a statistical comparison

Shardul slotting in at No.8 will mean India leaving out one of their three specialist seamers (it’s highly unlikely that they will go in with Jadeja and four specialist seamers). When fit, Jasprit Bumrah is a lock, meaning Shardul will be taking up the slot of either Shami or Siraj/Prasidh. 

How does he fare in comparison?

Experience is not a concern when it comes to Shardul, who has played the same number of ODIs as Siraj and Prasidh combined. The bowling average is more-than-acceptable for someone that can be considered a bowling all-rounder, and the strike rate is fantastic. 

However, the economy is certainly a big concern. Since Shardul’s ODI debut, among bowlers who have bowled at least as many overs as he has (274.0), his E.R of 6.2 is the worst. In fact, he is the only bowler in the last six years (min 274 overs) to have an E.R over 6.00 in ODI cricket. 

With Shardul, then, you can’t expect control, and it’s an issue because there are already two bowlers in the Indian seam attack — Pandya and Shami — whose career economy is more than 5.5. Replacing Shardul with Shami will be one way to get around the issue, but, as a pure bowler, Shardul does not topple Shami in any metric. 

He certainly is not a better bowler than Siraj either — Siraj, mind you, was ranked #1 in the world not too long ago — and does not have better numbers than Prasidh as well. 

So despite his uncanny ability to break partnerships and strike regularly, Shardul as a third seamer will weaken India’s bowling attack to a noticeable extent.

But there’s another way around this issue for India: that is playing all of Bumrah, Siraj and Shami, and replacing Kuldeep with a spinner that can bat.

Kuldeep vs Axar vs Sundar: a statistical comparison 

In many ways, reputation-wise, Kuldeep is more ‘droppable’ than both Shami and Siraj. As it stands, Kuldeep’s biggest competitors are Axar and Sundar. 

Kuldeep’s overall numbers blow that of both Axar and Sundar out of water, so a more relevant comparison would be the trio’s numbers since the start of last year.

Even then, a ‘returning’ Kuldeep, far from his best version, has been levels above both Axar and Sundar when it comes to providing a wicket-taking threat. 

However, the interesting aspect is control: all three spinners have nearly identical economy rates.

This is significant, for it means that if India believe that the trio of Bumrah, Shami and Siraj can provide sufficient attacking threat, they could contemplate swapping Kuldeep out for one of Axar or Sundar.

In that case, it’s hard not to feel Sundar will be the better choice, for not only have his numbers with the ball been far superior to Axar’s, he also brings variety. Axar’s redundancy of being a left-arm spinner (same as Jadeja) serves as a barrier. They have identical numbers as batters in this period although it has to be said, at No.8, Axar is a far better fit than Sundar due to his ability to explode. 

The conclusions, either way, are as follows

> Playing 4 specialist bowlers (#8 to #11) will be a huge risk.

> Shardul at No.8 will improve the lower-order but will downgrade the pace attack

> Kuldeep is the best strike bowler India have; removing him will reduce the spin attack’s potency.

> If India play all three of Bumrah, Shami and Siraj, Sundar might be the best option for No.8 (as the second-spinner) as he’s a better bowler than Axar and provides more variety.

India played with four bowlers — Kuldeep, Chahal, Bumrah and Bhuvi — and Pandya between 2018 & 2019, why can’t they do it this time around?

India did predominantly play with a back four of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Kuldeep, Chahal and Bumrah between 2018 and 2019, but what’s often overlooked is how solid a batter Bhuvneshwar was. 

From the start of 2017 till the end of the 2019 World Cup, Bhuvi averaged 22.71 with the bat. In this period, he made multiple game-turning contributions, the most famous of the lot being the unbeaten 53 in Pallekele, where he stitched an unbeaten 100-run stand with Dhoni to help India chase 231 after they were staring down the barrel at one point (131/7). 

So while India technically played their four ‘best’ bowlers, they also had security at No.8.

It is a stark contrast to the situation now, where the ‘best’ batter among specialist bowlers is Kuldeep, whose batting is not in the same ballpark as that of peak Bhuvi. 

Plus, there is another other factor: India’s batting is not as strong as it was four years ago.

In 71 ODIs between 2017 and 2019 (till the end of the World Cup), the Indian batting line-up averaged 45.8. Since 2020, this number has dropped to 39.00. 

Granted India have not always had their ‘strongest XI’ at their disposal in ODIs in the last four years, but it is no secret that their batting is not invincible as it once used to be.

Hence all the more reason to have a slightly longer batting line-up. 

Did lower-order runs play a big part in deciding the 2019 World Cup?

Interestingly, nope.  

Funnily enough, England and New Zealand, the two finalists, both of whom are known for their ‘batting depth’, were 7th and 8th in terms of lower-order contribution (#8 to #11). India’s lower-order contributed more than that of both England and New Zealand, but that figure was skewed by Jadeja’s scintillating knock at No.8 in the semi-final. 

The lower-order of three of the four semi-finalists were placed in the bottom half of the table (ranking). Both England and New Zealand also did not have a single 50-run partnership, seventh wicket onwards.

But what cannot be overlooked here is the personnel. 

England and New Zealand’s lower-order under-performed, yes, but one team had Mitchell Santner at No.8 and the other, Liam Plunkett, who had a career average of 20.83. Not just that, England batted all the way till No.10: Adil Rashid, their #10, at that point had a batting average of 18.96.

The presence or absence of added security — knowing there are/aren’t proficient batters in the lower-order capable of squeezing out runs — usually makes an intangible difference to the way the middle-order batters (No.4 to No.7) approach the game, as was evident in the T20Is between India and West Indies last month. The psychological difference usually is telling.

For this very reason, it seems almost a given that the Men in Blue will sacrifice some extra juice in the bowling to get that much more assurance down the order with the bat.

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