In the prior instance when India participated in an ODI World Cup, they grappled with issues in their middle-order configuration. Their challenges included relying on a declining cricket legend at the fifth spot, a batting all-rounder whose bowling had lost the team’s trust at number six, and a constant rotation of options for the fourth position. None of these choices received a substantial opportunity to prove themselves before the tournament.
This time, however, they face a different quandary – one of abundance. This predicament is so significant that one of their middle-order selections might have slipped out of India’s preferred World Cup XI on a day when he showcased an astonishing century of skill during the second ODI against Australia in Indore.
Only four Indian batters have accumulated over 1000 ODI runs with an average above 40 and a strike rate exceeding 90 while batting in positions four to six. This exclusive group includes both Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul.
Just a month ago, prior to the start of the Asia Cup, it appeared highly likely that they would begin the World Cup at positions four and five.
However, the situation has evolved. Rahul is almost certain to secure a spot in the starting XI. He may even assume the role of India’s primary wicketkeeper, despite Ishan Kishan’s recent stints with the gloves. Rahul’s ODI average this year is only marginally lower than Shubman Gill’s, a remarkable feat in 2023. In his last five innings, he has notched a century, two half-centuries, and an outstanding 44-ball 39 on a challenging Colombo pitch against the formidable Dunith Wellalage.
Iyer’s situation is more intricate. He has been grappling with back injuries in recent months, and during his sporadic appearances in the side, other batters have had opportunities to showcase their abilities. Nonetheless, when he stepped in to bat on Sunday, Iyer likely retained his position ahead of Kishan in the middle-order hierarchy. His brisk 90-ball 105 likely bolstered his standing.
Suryakumar always represented an intriguing choice due to his unique skill set. He may have no equal in T20s when it comes to pinpointing specific areas of the field and striking the ball there, irrespective of the line, length, or type of bowler.
In T20 cricket, Suryakumar typically bats after the powerplay, when the fielding side is allowed five fielders outside the 30-yard circle. In ODIs, he is expected to spend more time batting during overs 11-40, when only four fielders are allowed outside the inner ring. In theory, this should offer him more opportunities to exploit gaps in the field, settle into his innings, and be discerning in his shot selection.
However, the transition from theory to execution isn’t always straightforward, as Suryakumar discovered during his initial 25 ODI innings, where he managed only two half-centuries and averaged 24.40.
Nevertheless, India maintained unwavering faith in his abilities. Their coach, Rahul Dravid, expressed resounding confidence in Suryakumar’s place in India’s World Cup squad. “We’ve finalized our team for the World Cup,” he announced.
Since then, in just two ODIs over three days, Suryakumar may have substantially strengthened his case. His 49-ball 50 in Mohali showcased his adaptability to ODI No. 6 batting, while his unbeaten 37-ball 72 in Indore illuminated what sets him apart from other Indian batters in that position.
While there are other players in India’s squad capable of striking consecutive sixes against tall, fast-medium bowlers like Cameron Green, can they execute these shots with the precision displayed by Suryakumar, methodically targeting specific areas of the field? Can they pull off shots like his flick-sweep over backward square leg or deftly guide an off-stump yorker between the keeper and short third, as Suryakumar did off Sean Abbott, and two balls later, slice open the bat face to direct the ball to various parts of the field? Few players worldwide possess this level of versatility, with Jos Buttler and Glenn Maxwell being among the exceptions.
In terms of potential, Suryakumar could elevate India’s capabilities much like Buttler and Maxwell have done for England and Australia. While it may be argued that two innings are insufficient to draw such a comparison, it’s worth noting that both Buttler and Maxwell encountered initial struggles in ODIs before finding their rhythm.
These early challenges underscore the difficulty of emulating the playing style of these maverick players, who take greater risks than most and are well-acquainted with setbacks. However, when they do succeed, they expand their team’s range of possibilities, and Suryakumar possesses the potential to achieve just that.
As the World Cup approaches, India faces a pivotal decision. Option A features a top six lineup comprising Rohit Sharma, Gill, Virat Kohli, Iyer, Rahul, and Hardik Pandya, which appears formidable but lacks diversity in batting styles. Option B, on the other hand, includes Rohit, Gill, Kohli, Rahul, Hardik, and Suryakumar, potentially covering all aspects except for a left-handed batter.
The lineup in the upcoming third ODI against Australia, India’s last match before the World Cup, may offer insights into how they will arrange their team for the tournament’s opening match in Chennai on October 8.