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India vs. Australia: Is it time to experiment with Axar Patel at No.3?

India's top order batsmen have fared poorly against Australia's pacy seamers, especialy Mitchell Starc. For the third ODI, India needs to find an answer

Is it time to promote Axar Patel up the batting order?
Is it time to promote Axar Patel up the batting order? (PTI)

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To a neutral observer, the sight of Australia’s left-arm speedster Mitchell Starc swinging the new ball into the pads of India’s right-handed top order batsmen at over 140 kmph was a sight to behold in the first two ODIs of the current series. An unbeaten century partnership between K.L. Rahul and Ravindra Jadeja bailed India out in the first ODI after Starc had wreaked havoc. There was no such reprieve after another top order collapse in the second ODI, as India got bowled out for 117 in Visakhapatnam, which is normally a high-scoring venue. What can India do differently in the 3rd ODI in Chennai on Wednesday?

Virat Kohli played across the line to get out LBW in both matches. Shubman Gill flayed at wide balls slanted across him to be caught at point both times. Likewise, skipper Rohit Sharma, who missed the first ODI, fell to Starc’s away-going variation. And Suryakumar Yadav froze like a deer caught in the headlights to be out LBW in both ODIs, failing to bring his bat down and across in time. 

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Starc is a handful with the new ball, in rhythm and crossing 140 kmph with ease. He’s doubly dangerous when the white ball keeps swinging through his opening spell. And when he has a line of right-handers to bowl to, his tail goes up a notch.

It’s not the first time India have collapsed to a quality left-arm fast bowler when the ball swings. Perhaps the most dramatic was how Pakistan’s Shaheen Shah Afridi, and New Zealand’s Trent Boult blew away India’s top order in the 2021 T20 World Cup in Dubai. 

Boult was also partly responsible for India’s shocking loss to the Kiwis in the semi-final of the last ODI World Cup. After Matt Henry removed the Indian openers, Boult twisted the dagger with the wicket of then skipper Virat Kohli, reducing his fancied team to 5/3. India were the favourites after topping the league stage, but one cool, moist morning in Manchester, after rain extended play into a reserve day, proved to be their undoing as the ball started swinging.

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More recently, England’s tall left-armer Reece Topley rolled India over for 146 in a chase of 247. Topley had figures of 6 for 24. And this was at Lord’s where India will play the World Test Championship (WTC) final, starting 7 June. If Starc could not be contained in Vizag, how will India cope with him at Lord’s?

Apart from the usual remedies of playing in the V instead of across the line, and letting wide balls alone in Starc’s opening spell, India can consider breaking up the top three with a left-handed batsman. A left-right combination disturbs a bowler’s line, and can affect somebody like Starc who is at his best when he settles into a rhythm. One reason for the success of the opening partnership of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan was their left-right combination which disturbed opening bowlers.

Now the right-handed Shubman Gill has taken Dhawan’s place. No doubt his form, technique, and temperament make him the best partner for Sharma at the top. But what’s worth considering is a left-hander at No. 3 to disrupt Starc’s rhythm and prevent him from reeling in three or four wickets with the new ball. 

A leftie at No. 3 would push Virat Kohli down to No. 4, which has the added advantage of not exposing him to the new ball. He’s on a comeback trail but not out of the woods yet, seeing the mode of his dismissals by Starc. Although he scored three ODI centuries in recent months, they came against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, who don't have new ball bowlers of Starc’s pedigree. 

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Kohli has a hunger to score big, after his long drought from the beginning of 2020, and No. 4 may give him a better opportunity to do that. He could also stabilize the innings if early wickets fall. 

The question then arises as to the left-hander who can be slotted at No. 3. On paper, Ishan Kishan seems a likely candidate, but the wicketkeeper-batsman is proving to be a flat wicket bully. He has had a string of failures when bowlers and conditions are more challenging. Another wicketkeeper-batsman who could have been slotted is Rishabh Pant, but he’s out of action after his accident. 

Here’s where the Indian think tank has an opportunity to try something new. Left-arm spin all-rounders Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel have been as good as, if not better, than the top order batsmen in recent times. Jadeja is the more proven batsman, but the way Axar Patel handled the second new ball in the first Test, not just surviving but counterattacking Australia skipper Pat Cummins was a revelation. He has always been a very good player of spin, but his newfound confidence against pace makes him an equally good candidate for No. 3.

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Patel’s 84 in Nagpur and 74 in Delhi played huge roles in India’s victories in the first two Tests to win the series 2-1 and qualify for the WTC final. And yet, despite averaging way more than any other batsman in the Test series, he has continued to languish at No. 8 and No. 9 where he often runs out of partners, as he did in the last ODI. Will Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid now turn radical to promote Patel or Jadeja to No. 3? Or will they bury their heads in the sand and claim that the top order flops were just an aberration?

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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