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Cricket news - Middle order struggles compound Australia's woes

That Australia's white-ball form, especially in ODIs has plummeted drastically over the last year or two is now an open secret.

When you've got an opening partnership exceeding 75 in pursuit of a target that's just over 250, you win more games than you lose. As any cricket expert worth his salt would say, a good solid start is almost half the job done, particularly in a run-chase. What they often don't stress enough on, is the need for a vigilant and proactive middle order that can consolidate on the efforts of the top. It's an area that's biting Australia hard and the defeat in Nagpur wasn't a one-off to be brushed under the carpet.

That Australia's white-ball form, especially in ODIs, has plummeted drastically over the last year or two is now an open secret. Yes, the David Warner-Steve Smith exile did deflate them since the Cape Town fiasco, but it wasn't as if the team was doing wonders before the duo's suspension. The inefficiency of the middle order - the positions from No. 4 to No. 6 - remains the crux of a series of issues that Australia have at hand, looking ahead to their title defence which is barely three months away.

A stunning revelation is the lack of three-figure knocks from the Australian middle order. In fact, Shaun Marsh's hundred against India earlier this year in Adelaide was the first such instance in the period dating back from January 2017. Only Pakistan and Ireland have worse returns among the full member nations in this department. This has put a lot of pressure on the top order which has had its own issues since Warner and Smith were banned.

Performance of middle order since January 2017

Collective consistency of the middle order was what was missing in Nagpur too. Aaron Finch and Usman Khawaja set the tone with a fluent 83-run stand and although they fell in successive overs, the stage was set for the others to drive home the advantage. Marsh and Peter Handscomb did stitch a handy third-wicket partnership as well but from 122 for 2, the Aussies slipped to 171 for 5. It's the kind of mini collapse that's been way too common in recent times.

With lack of consistency from the middle order, it's only natural that there aren't many big partnerships to talk about. There are only four century partnerships over the last two years for Australia - only Sri Lanka have poorer returns. That Australia have tried out the most number players after Sri Lanka tells you the confusion that prevails. The mantra to beat Australia appears to be quite simple - cut off the head and the rest will follow.

Most 50+ partnerships from 3rd-5th wicket since January 2017

To be an efficient side, you either need to have a superhuman top order like India or terrific batting depth that allows fearless cricket from the start, like England. These two sides have pretty much set the templates for how ODI cricket must be played, with contrasting styles. This is where Australia face a tough challenge, their top three aren't intimidating enough to win games frequently on their own, and they do not have the depth to pile on the big scores.

The selection blunders haven't helped either. How a player of Travis Head's calibre isn't part of the ODI squad at this point is a real mystery. The southpaw has been an ideal middle-order batsman, capable of rotating strike, hitting big and also finishing the innings. His returns in ODIs have been reasonable too, except that the think-tank forced him to open and though he notched up a couple of tons there, his natural inability against the new ball saw him get a small slump in form which gave him the axe.

Australia haven't also been able to find a performing player at number four, which meant that Smith at times took that spot despite it being a slot low for his liking. In fact, the story of the middle order as a unit has been the same. Of the 16 players who have batted between No. 4-6, since January 2017, only three average above 30 and just a single batsman, in the 40s. Marsh does have an average close to 60 but he has only played four games there.

These aren't encouraging numbers by any means but there has also been a lack of backing given to batsmen auditioning for the spots. At times, Glenn Maxwell has batted higher while they've recalled Chris Lynn, only for the latter to keep getting injured. Handscomb, Mitchell Marsh, Moises Henriques were some of the options tried without much of a longer rope given. Unless Australia find stability in this department, they're bound to struggle big time.

The other key element that's hurting Australia big time is the wicketkeeper-batsman's slot. The team of the 2000s had brought up the concept of a wicketkeeper being a genuine all-rounder, who can be relied on as a pure batsman as well as an efficient gloveman. Adam Gilchrist revolutionised the concept and in Brad Haddin, they had a more than decent successor. However, this is an area where Australia have been shockingly below par over the last two years.

Performance of wicketkeeper-batsmen team-wise since January 2017

In the times of Gilchrist, and later Haddin, the wicketkeeper-batsman acted as the all-rounder who provided tremendous balance to the side. To an extent, Matthew Wade was reasonable albeit not in the range as his predecessors. A highly impressive international comeback in the 2017-18 Ashes series saw Tim Paine getting the role in ODIs too - a move that raised eyebrows. Since then, the department has been a concern for the team.

Both Paine and Alex Carey who succeeded him are fine batsmen who are extremely different in styles, the common factor being that they're more used to batting in the top half of the order instead of the finisher's slot at number seven. It's an issue that's dogged Australia in a big way - they did try to get Carey to open in a move that barely lasted a few games. Handscomb, more of a batsman whose keeping is progressing, was also given a brief trial as the designated keeper.

The think tank seems to realize that the wicketkeeper puzzle is a must-solve but they seem to have no real ideas on how to go about it. While almost all other teams have a reliable wicketkeeper-batsman, it's clear that the position is one of Australia's biggest drawbacks. It also dents the balance of the side, considering that there isn't much coming from the gloveman in terms of runs and impact. Looking at the domestic form across formats, Wade seems a genuine option, but such a move seems unlikely at this stage.

For now, Carey seems to have impressed the selectors with his temperament and characteristics of being a busy player who excels in strike rotation. The flip side is that he isn't a power hitter, the kind that you need in the lower middle order. At best, Carey's release shots, quite like Paine's, are more about manipulating the ball into gaps than clearing the ropes. Therefore, unless the latter's batting position is reordered, Australia will continue to face this issue.

The ideal solution will be to revert to Carey opening the batting but with Aaron Finch the skipper already there and Warner set to return, it will be a difficult situation for the management. Smith would also be back which means the spots are taken up in the top four with Shaun a certain starter. Marcus Stoinis's emergence makes him another automatic pick meaning the one spot left in the top six will see Maxwell competing with Handscomb and, perhaps, Ashton Turner.

In such a scenario, the best solution, albeit a short-term one at this point, will be to give the gloves to Handscomb who has the ability to bat at five. If Finch continues to struggle, there could be a case for Carey to be the opener although D'Arcy Short's current form and his utility with the ball makes him a better package. Either way, this allows the likes of Maxwell and Stoinis to feature in unison, thereby beefing up the ammunition in the batting arsenal.

With the two all-rounders more than capable with the ball, Australia would not only have a potentially strong middle order but also a balanced team with the wicketkeeper conundrum also settled. There isn't any dearth of match-winners in the current Australian side, but the management of resources has been shambolic. For the team to climb up the ladder, some bold calls need to be made.

The ODI World Cup champions faced a dismal 2017 and the succeeding year was beyond disastrous. While they do face concerns like form and fitness, the strengthening of the middle order and utilising the wicketkeeper well remain the priorities if they are to have a chance of defending the title in England this year. Australia are known to step up in World Cups but considering their recent form and their track record in England, it will be a huge task. Yet, it isn't impossible by any stretch of imagination.

Teams' form guide since January 2017

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