Home ICC Cricket World Cup Chetan Sharma Exclusive: India need to find a remedy to middle-order woes...

Chetan Sharma Exclusive: India need to find a remedy to middle-order woes as soon as possible

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Mohammed Shami became only the second Indian to claim a hat-trick in the World Cup after he dismissed Afghanistan’s Mohammad Nabi, Aftab Alam and Mujeeb ur Rahman off the third, fourth and fifth deliveries of the final over of the game to hand India a narrow 11-run win in Southampton. The first Indian—in fact, the first player in the history of the tournament—to accomplish this feat is former all-rounder Chetan Sharma, who took his hat-trick against Jeff Crowe’s New Zealand in Nagpur during the 1987 Reliance World Cup. 

A prominent member of the Indian side during the latter half of the 1980s and the early nineties, Sharma, apart from his useful medium-pace, was also a handy batsman down the order, which made him to be seen as a potential successor to Kapil Dev as far as all-round skills were concerned. He played twenty-three Tests and sixty-five ODIs for India between 1983 and 1994, picking up 148 international wickets in the process. People have so often talked about his ‘doomed’ full toss to Javed Miandad in the Austral-Asia Cup final in Sharjah in 1986, that they have unfairly forgotten his more remarkable achievements as a seam bowler.

31 October 1987, Chetan Sharma Takes First World Cup Hat-trick against New Zealand in Nagpur © Getty Images/ICC

Two such highlights from his career that immediately spring to mind are his sixteen wickets from two matches which helped India secure a 2-0 away series win against England in 1986, and his parsimonious bowling in the final of the Benson and Hedges Cup in 1985 against Pakistan, where he gave away only seventeen runs off his seven overs, besides picking up the wicket of Ramiz Raja. India won that contest by eight wickets. 

Speaking exclusively to cricfit.com correspondent Ritam Basu the day after India’s 31-run defeat to England at Edgbaston, Sharma cited the reasons for India’s loss in that game and expressed his concern about India’s blow-hot-blow-cold middle-order. 

Q: What according to you are the main reasons behind India’s loss to England on Sunday?

Chetan Sharma: First and foremost, the toss was a very important factor at Edgbaston. In big games such as that, the toss plays a very important role. It may sound like a mere hypothesis, but if we had won the toss, we would’ve easily won the game.
Secondly, we failed to take any wicket in the first powerplay, even though our fast bowlers bowled well. And whenever our fast bowlers don’t manage to get the initial breakthroughs, our spinners always struggle to make any impact. Our spinners gave away 160 runs in their 20 overs! That was the main turning point of the game, the fact that our spinners bowled very badly.

Q: Do you think it was also a matter of not reading the wicket well because England dropped a spinner (Moeen Ali) from their side to accommodate an extra seamer, whereas India fielded two specialist spinners?

Chetan Sharma: We generally do not play with four fast bowlers. It has been India’s custom to go in with two spinners and three pace bowlers and that has always been our strength, but our spinners couldn’t bowl to their full potential. That is where we lost the game. 

Q: I was watching your analysis of the game on television yesterday and not only you but almost all the former players have said one thing—that there was lack of intent on the part of our batsmen. Would you have been happier if our lower middle-order batsmen had pushed for a win even after the fall of Pandya’s wicket instead of playing cautiously to keep the margin of loss as low as possible?

Chetan Sharma: Trust me, I just couldn’t understand what exactly our batsmen were trying to do in the last six or seven overs. Hardik getting out was a crucial factor; as long as he was batting we were still in hunt for a win. But the asking rate had gone up too high. Their bowlers also bowled brilliantly; they varied their pace very well. As you might have noticed, their pacers bowled a lot of slower deliveries towards the back end of the Indian innings, so that our batsmen would struggle to get underneath the ball and play the big shots. It looked as if the primary task for both Dhoni and Kedar was to ensure that we didn’t lose the game by a big margin. When you have almost made it to the knockouts, you should’ve gone for a win and not looked to protect your NRR. It’s always better to go down fighting than not fight at all.

Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Q:  Do you think the inconsistency and slow batting of India’s lower middle-order batsmen has compounded the pressure on Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, as a result of which we can see an element of caution in their batting as well?

Chetan Sharma: Yes, obviously! If you lose one of your openers (read KL Rahul) for a duck within the first five overs, then there is no other option for the two batsmen at the crease than saving their wickets and playing cautiously. In today’s age, teams aim to make the most of their first ten overs and try to score as many runs as possible while the field restrictions are in place. We managed to score only 28 runs off our first ten overs, whereas England made 47 runs in their first powerplay without losing any wicket. How is it possible to chase 338 after you make such a slow start? I think Shikhar’s absence has been a huge loss for India. 

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Q: What do you have to say about KL Rahul’s performance so far? He has hardly looked comfortable opening the batting barring the Pakistan game, where even though he made a fifty, he got out playing a loose shot?

Chetan Sharma: That is why the selectors have named Mayank Agarwal as a replacement for Vijay Shankar. One plus point about Mayank is that he is a versatile batsman; [he] can bat anywhere in the batting order. It remains to be seen if the Indian team management tries him at the top of the order or in the middle-order.

Q: Do you think his selection is justified? Could the selectors have picked an experienced player like Ajinkya Rahane, who is also a versatile batsman and is currently playing county cricket in England?

Chetan Sharma: I think it is fair to give one of the standbys a chance…

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Q: But Mayank was not named as a standby. The four standbys were Rishabh Pant, Ambati Rayudu, Navdeep Saini and Ishant Sharma.

Chetan Sharma: Okay. Then it’s a surprising call, one has to say. It all depends on what the captain and the team management want from the selectors. I think depending on the current situation, they have preferred Mayank to the batsmen you have just named. 

Q: Do you think India should tamper with their middle-order, maybe bring someone like Dinesh Karthik or Ravindra Jadeja in place of Kedar Jadhav?

Chetan Sharma: It’s very much possible. Ravindra Jadeja could be a good replacement depending on the wicket tomorrow. Kedar has neither proven useful as a number six batsman, nor has he been given enough opportunities to bowl. What is the use of having him in the team then? Whatever changes and experiments India have to make, they have to make now. They cannot afford to try new things out in the knockouts. 

Q: The game against Bangladesh is also scheduled to be played in Birmingham. The wicket that we saw yesterday was just the opposite of what we had seen in the New Zealand versus Pakistan game, where the ball was turning sharply. If the match is played on that turning pitch tomorrow and with Bangladesh putting in a minimum of 25 overs of spin in every game, do you think scoring will be difficult for the Indian batsmen, given the way they played against Afghanistan, where they couldn’t rotate the strike well?

Chetan Sharma: I think India didn’t read the wicket well in the previous game. It was not the centre wicket, so the boundary was longer on one side. If we get the centre wicket tomorrow, on which New Zealand played against Pakistan, I think India will have to plan their game very smartly because it’s not going to be easy to score on that wicket. They might bring in Ravindra Jadeja. Who makes so many changes in the last half of the tournament? Injury blows have hit us big time.

Q:  The Bangladeshi team has been playing very well of late, having defeated teams like South Africa and the West Indies in the tournament so far. With such a huge wealth of experience in the side, does Bangladesh stand a good chance of defeating India tomorrow?

Chetan Sharma: Any team can defeat any team in this tournament on a particular day. That’s what you expect from a ten-team World Cup. We cannot take anything for granted. What happened against England is a thing of the past now. It is going to be a fresh game against a different opposition. The need of the hour is to play positive cricket. The bowling coach also needs to talk individually to the bowlers. 26% of Yuzvendra Chahal’s balls have been googlies so far, but he didn’t bowl a single googly against England. According to me, we lost because of our bowling yesterday. India’s bowling has been the stronger suit in recent times, and when your strength becomes your weakness, you’re bound to lose. 

Q: You were the first Indian to claim a hat-trick in the World Cup and recently, against Afghanistan, Mohammed Shami became the second Indian to achieve this feat, after a long wait of 32 years. What is your assessment of the way he has bowled in the tournament till now?

Chetan Sharma: (enthusiastically) He is bowling very well; there can be no doubt about it. He has taken 13 wickets from just three matches so far and has looked extremely sharp. I think this improvement in his bowling has been wrought by his increased fitness, but those 44 runs off his last three overs in England proved too costly for India in the end (laughs)! He has to take care of this, make sure that he doesn’t leak too many runs from his end at the death while the bowler from the other end has conceded just 44 runs in his ten overs. He is a fast learner. He is capable of doing much better.

Q:  Which team has impressed you the most in the tournament so far?

Chetan Sharma: Australia is playing a very good and competitive brand of cricket. Their seam bowling attack is the best in the tournament. Whoever is coming in is picking up wickets and justifying his selection. I have always maintained that bowlers win you matches, and whichever team has the best bowling attack is most likely to win the tournament.

Q: What do you make of India’s chances in the knockouts?

Chetan Sharma: Our batting, especially the middle-order batting, has to really improve. The sooner they are able to find a remedy to this problem, the better it will be for them.