India must solve their middle-order muddle - the big three can't do it all

Virat Kohli's biggest fear was exposed at Lord's. He mentioned recently that the one area India need to work out before the World Cup is the middle order. He was right. On Saturday, India's venerable batting order unravelled, leaving Kohli chewing his nails watching the horror show from the vantage point of the dressing room balcony.

Tongues wagged in the morning after Eoin Morgan elected to bat on a what turned out to be a slow pitch. Kohli said at the toss he would have chased anyway. Those were words spoken more from confidence than arrogance.

It has not just been their form, but one the main reason India have been such a dominant force in ODI cricket in the last couple of years has been the success of their top order comprising Kohli, who follows the openers Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan.

In the last three years, in successful chases, Rohit, Dhawan and Kohli have together scored 59% of the runs for India. In the last eight matches, one of those three has scored a century. Here Rohit failed, having notched a match-winning century at Trent Bridge. Dhawan set the momentum with a powerful start, but once again could not convert. Kohli showed promise, but stuttered and was eventually defeated by a good ball.

It was a golden opportunity for the likes of KL Rahul, Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni to step up. Rahul, who has shown fluent touch so far in the tour, fell for a duck. Raina had cobbled together an 80-run partnership with Kohli. When Kohli left the stage was his.

The second-most experienced player at Lord's (after Dhoni), Raina once again disappointed. Raina was not actually meant to be part of the ODI squad. That he has earned a chance was courtesy of Ambati Rayudu failing the mandatory yo-yo fitness test. Raina's last ODI appearance before this series was in 2015.

He was not needed at Trent Bridge on Thursday. However, at Lord's as soon as he walked in he started playing as if every ball was a short delivery. Off one such delivery, the 19th he faced, Ben Stokes pitched a short one on Raina's fourth stump. Raina did not need to play it. But he had already decided to move outside the off stump to awkwardly fend off the short delivery. The ball flew off the shoulder of his bat towards the empty short midwicket area as Stokes attempted to pouch it on his follow through.

Raina was dropped on 28 by Jos Butler behind the stumps and then in the covers by Jason Roy. What might come as disheartening for him was the fact that the conditions were not unfriendly. And while both Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid were imparting impressive revolutions on their deliveries while pitching it up, Raina is known to be a good player of spin.

Usually Raina knows when to take the risks, but England bowled a disciplined line and length allowing hardly any loose deliveries. By the time Raina departed, failing to read a wrong 'un from Rashid, India needed 169 in 19 overs with just Hardik Pandya left to support Dhoni. One of the most respected finishers in cricket faltered badly in choreographing the chase.

Unlike England, who are blessed with a deep batting line-up owing to many allrounders, India's batting order ends with Pandya at No. 7. With Kohli sticking to No. 3, the onus is always going to be on the middle order in case he and the openers fail to make an impact as was the case today.

One would argue why India want to field Raina while benching Dinesh Karthik, who offers them flexibility with his versatility as a batsman. That, the India think tank will tell you, is because they want a sixth bowling option, someone who can bowl part-time to ease the pressure or hold an end - something Raina did in the first two ODIs where he bowler a total of five overs.

However, Raina could find it hard to be a long-term option especially once Kedar Jadhav is fit and ready. Jadhav could fill up the No. 7 spot while bowling his off breaks.

Whatever the personnel, they need to be capable of balancing risk with opportunity. And they ought to do it quickly.

India learned a few lessons on Saturday. They thought they could master any chase. That still remains the case subject to one of their top order batsman scoring big. They thought their batsmen are relatively better players of good spin bowling. But they are equally vulnerable as Moeen and Rashid showed them. India need to make adjustments quickly.

It is 365 days to go before the World Cup final. The venue will be Lord's again. India are considered favourites to reach that final. If they really want to be the favourites, they have 364 days now to sort the middle order.