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Cricket news - India paper over widening batting cracks

KL Rahul now finds himself as a vital cog in the engine room of India's batting - the top three.

With their league stages half done, where do India stand at the moment, is a question that is bound to be pop up in many a conversation. The obvious ones first - third on the points table with more games left to play than any other team. They've potentially played more tough opponents already than the ones remaining. And so, that semi-final spot looks highly likely right now.

But is what we've seen so far, enough to call them the favorites for the title? Australia and New Zealand are definitely the nearest contenders, and India have beaten one of them already. England, the other big contender, have now been forced to think of qualification first, before the title. It does put India in a great spot, but comparisons with only what the others have been doing, comes with its own pitfalls. They can cover up some vulnerabilities that exist within.

In every game barring the one against Pakistan, India have gone through phases where the result was seemingly headed the other way. Against South Africa, the batsmen led by Rohit Sharma (who was put down twice) fronted up to a menacing challenge led by Rabada. Against Australia, the bowlers managed to defend 352 by only 36 runs, and Mohammed Nabi's magic was just about staved off against Afghanistan after a below-par batting display on a sluggish pitch. That they won all of these games points towards a good cricket team, that has the feel of winning but also importantly, a bit of luck on its side. What it doesn't say is that there are a few plot-holes that are yet to be fleshed out.

They've been hugely hit by injuries, yes. The loss of Shikhar Dhawan is inarguably more damaging to their prospects, than that of Bhuvneshwar Kumar who is only out for a part of the tournament. Bhuvneshwar's replacement, Mohammed Shami fills up the bowling void quite easily but the same cannot be said about Rahul in Dhawan's shoes. The resultant changes of Dhawan fracturing his finger has meant that Rahul moves back to open, and with that shoulders the pressure of being a crucial cog in the engine room of India's batting - the top three.

In a tournament like the World Cup, recent-form can be a huge factor, with batsmen able to rack up more than one hundred once they get going. Rohit Sharma, Joe Root, Aaron Finch, David Warner, Kane Williamson and Shakib Al Hasan have all validated that in the ongoing edition. Meanwhile Rahul is facing a battle to get that one big score, to convert one of those starts that he's got so far into something more substantial. He's had scores of 26, 11, 57 and 30. The fifty, a useful knock against Pakistan had Rahul playing second-fiddle to a rampaging Rohit Sharma. But can Rahul do that single-handedly as Dhawan did against Australia?

Vijay Shankar, the man who replaced Rahul at No. 4, falls in a similar zone. Vijay has had only one outing in the position he was originally earmarked for, and his 29 against Afghanistan didn't too much damage to the scoring rate on a sluggish pitch, but neither did he make his presence untenable. It is a position that has been of worry for India much before the World Cup, and a position where India stand at the bottom in the runs tally for the tournament. Vijay hasn't had much of a run as yet in that position, but the uncertainty there possibly affects the batting of those around. That he was not called upon to defend a score that had left Virat Kohli unsure at the halfway stage re-emphasises the value of his dimension as a bowler.

Is it this unstable middle order, or his own waning skills, that made MS Dhoni trudge to 28 off 52 against Afghanistan is anyone's guess. Bharat Arun, India's bowling coach believes it is the former. "I think according to the situation and the condition of the wicket, we were able to successfully defend the total that we put up. And had we probably lost a wicket at that stage, then things would have turned out differently. So I don't think it's too much of a concern for us right now," was Arun's reading of that Dhoni innings. But on the other hand, Sachin Tendulkar told India Today that Dhoni's strike rotation has to improve. It isn't a new debate, certainly not when it comes to Dhoni in ODIs, and could yet hamper India's bid to up the run-rate between overs 30 and 40, which Kohli had revealed was on their agenda from as early as 2018.

While Shami fills in Bhuvneshwar Kumar's bowling shoes pretty well, it also leaves a lower order that is ready to be broken open, if the top half can be cleaned up early.

If West Indies, and the teams to follow, were to create a roadmap to prick India at their pressure points, based purely on most-recent form, then their first few stops would be at Rahul, Vijay, Dhoni and through them to the lower order. It could still prove to be dead-ends, which could mean that India would head into the business end of the tournament as the scary machine that can intimidate opponents. But that'll have to wait for a while longer.

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