In 2015, India were a whisker away from winning a third World title, going down by 95 runs against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Four years later the side, now led by Virat Kohli, enter the 2019 edition World cup as top contenders alongside the hosts, England.
Over the past couple of years, England has gradually changed the character of its pitches in favour of the batsman, with the result that 350 is about par. On batting tracks, it is the quality of the bowling unit that determines the outcome, and India go in to the 2019 Cup with one of the strongest bowling units in the world.
India’s refurbished bowling attack:
Between 2015-2019, India has taken on average 8 wickets per match – easily the side’s best performance leading to World Cups. And both spinners and pacers have worked in tandem to create this lethal bowling unit.
Among the pacers, Jasprit Bumrah is far and away the best, particularly during the powerplays. Since the start of the 2017 Champion’s Trophy, Bumrah has bowled nearly 50% of his overs in the powerplays and, although he hasn’t picked too many wickets, he has a phenomenal economy rate of 3.45 in powerplay overs, the best among all pacers who have bowled a minimum of 250 balls.
A key reason Bumrah is hard to face during the powerplays is his ability to bowl yorkers at will -- since 2017, 13% of his deliveries in the death overs have been yorkers, the highest by any pacer between the overs 41-50. During this same period, he has picked 44 wickets, the highest by any pacer. The key here is that on batting tracks where anything on length or short is a gimme, Bumrah has the arsenal to both restrict, and take wickets.
Equally important for India’s prospects is the fact that their most experienced pacer in English conditions, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, has shown signs of revival after a dismal 2018.
Adding an extra dimension is the return of Mohammad Shami, who since his comeback from injury in October 2018 has been outstanding during all phases of the game. Shami has been effective by not only taking wickets between overs 1-10 and 11-40 but also putting a break on the scoring but not conceding too many runs in that period. He has taken 22 wickets in just 13 innings with an economy rate of 5.71 runs per over.
India’s spin duo of Kuldeep and Chahal have taken 99 wickets since 2017, accounting for 46.6% of India’s total wickets between the overs 15-40. What this translates into is a potent spin combination capable of bossing the middle overs and freeing up the pacers to do their damage during the opening powerplay and the death overs. Kuldeep had a fantastic 2018, taking 45 ODI wickets, the most by any Indian bowler. His match figures of 6/25 in the first match of the 2018 ODI series against England was the best spell by an Indian bowler in that country. His spin mate Chahal has, in the same period, taken 29 wickets in 17 matches. Individually, they are very good; when bowling in tandem, they are deadly.
Middle order conundrum:
India’s weak spot appears to be the middle order, which since 2018 has averaged just 32. Only Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the West Indies and Afghanistan are worse.
Exacerbating the problem is Dhoni’s inconsistency in scoring. In the last two years, his strike rate has fallen below 80 – a low he has never touched since 2010
An inability to rotate strike and the fact that he plays too many dot balls has combined to rob Dhoni of his finishing ability. India will take some heart from the fact that apart from 2007, he has performed well in his last two Cups, averaging 48.2 in the 2011 and over 59.3 in the 2015 World Cup.
A complicating factor is that India’s other middle order batsman, Kedhar Jadhav, has been injury prone. In the last two years he has managed to play only 14 matches. And probably as a result, his strike rate over the three year period has been going down.
India’s dream top-order
The expectations will be on the top 3 of Dhawan, Sharma and Kohli to deliver. Leading to the World Cup these three have scored 37 centuries, the most by any top-order. The troika averages above 50 in England.
Dhawan brings his A-game to ICC tournaments, where his batting average of 65 compares favourably with his career average of 41.2. His ally Rohit Sharma averaged 47 in the last Cup, the best by an Indian top order batsman in that tournament.
And then there is Kohli who, since taking over the captaincy from Dhoni, has raised his game to the next level.
Kohli is the only batsmen with an average of 40+ against all CWC opponents. Since the 2015 World Cup, Virat Kohli has a batting average of 82.73 – the best in the world by a number three batsman.
That is India in a nutshell: a beautifully balanced bowling unit, a world class top three, and a suspect middle order. If numbers four, five and six get their game on, India becomes odds-on favourites; if they don’t, India will find itself having to play an extra batsman, and this in turn will weaken the bowling.