By Sudipto Ganguly
MUMBAI (Reuters) – India are a class outfit but they will go into this year’s World Cup with a soft underbelly having failed to settle on a number four, former batsman Sanjay Manjrekar told Reuters in an interview.
With the experienced partnership of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan locked in as openers and captain Virat Kohli coming in at first drop, the twice champions have a top order the rival of any in the game.
Selectors continue to fret over who bats after the second wicket falls, however, with a series of candidates having fluffed their auditions.
Ajinkya Rahane, Manish Pandey, Lokesh Rahul and Dinesh Karthik have all been trialled for the number four spot and been found wanting.
Ambati Rayudu emerged as the most likely choice to fill the berth but scores of 13, 18 and two in the first three matches of the recent home series against world champions Australia damaged his cause.
The hosts ended up losing the series 3-2 and Manjrekar felt India were back to square one with no more ODIs scheduled before the May 30-July 14 World Cup in England and Wales, where India will be looking to add to their 1983 and 2011 triumphs.
“There was only one little gap that needed to be filled which is number four and getting some exciting options at four, five, six,” Manjrekar said.
“They tried quite a few people and I don’t begrudge them that. I don’t think that was wrong. It’s just disappointing that the players have not used the opportunity to cement their places.
“Like, Ambati Rayudu had a great opportunity. He got a 90 in New Zealand and I thought that’s done. But then he fails in the next few innings and then a good ball will suddenly get him out and you sort of lose faith in him as the number four.”
Vijay Shankar’s rise as a handy, nerveless all-rounder was one definite gain from the Australia series.
With India’s first choice pace-bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya injured, Shankar proved he could float in the batting order and hold his nerve in the death overs with ball in hand.
Manjrekar, who played 37 tests and 74 ODIs for India before turning his hand to media punditry, said that Shankar was his pick to fill the number four spot.
“Your number four has got to have a little bit of class because in England it’s perfectly possible that you are 20-2 so you got to have somebody who will just weather the storm and then take India close to 300 runs,” he said.
“That perfect number four India still haven’t found and I don’t think they will find it now.
“So when India goes into the World Cup, it’s a class team with genuine class in bowling and batting but with a soft underbelly which will be their middle order.
“Vijay Shankar is my current number four — not the ideal number four but from the candidates that we have, he is my number four.”
Manjrekar, speaking on the sidelines of the launch of ESPNcricinfo’s Superstats which uses data science to analyse cricket, said he expected the usual suspects to be challenging for the World Cup.
Five-times world champions Australia arrived in India as clear underdogs for the recent short format tour, having endured a wretched couple of years in ODIs during which they lost six series in a row.
That form slump was exacerbated by the ball-tampering scandal that robbed them of Steve Smith and David Warner for 12 months.
Without their two best batsmen as well as frontline pace duo Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, they still managed to win a five-match series from 2-0 down for the first time.
“I am delighted that Australia is coming into their own,” Manjrekar said.
“Because you don’t want a World Cup where there are one or two teams clear leaders and others are really struggling.
“And don’t forget they know what it takes to be champions. So if they have one or two good games, they will be thinking about only the title, nothing else.”
Manjrekar did not have the same optimism about the chances of hosts England, who top the ODI world rankings but have yet to win the World Cup.
“I want to see England on a global sort of platform, when the entire world is watching,” he added.
“I want to see how they cope with the pressure that comes with it. I have a big question mark over their temperament as a team.”
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Nick Mulvenney)