The start of India's campaign to win the World Cup for the first time in 28 years is barely three weeks away. Home conditions, a top notch batting line-up and a more than decent bowling attack make India one of the top contenders for the 2011 World Cup.
In Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, India has one of the most intimidating opening partnerships in world cricket today; and with the consistent Gautam Gambhir at No. 3, the 'Men in Blue' are virtually assured of good starts in most matches. The challenge for the rest of India's batsmen would be to build on the work done by the top three, who will all be returning from injuries in time for the mega-event.
The No. 6 and 7 positions in the batting order have been taken by captain MS Dhoni and Yusuf Pathan respectively. This leaves Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina to fight it out for the remaining two middle order positions in India's starting line-up. On form alone, Kohli deserves to edge out one of his senior colleagues even in a full-strength Indian team. But, if the team think-tank decides to base the starting XI solely on experience, Kohli is likely to lose out and this would be most unfair to the Delhi batsman who has been the best Indian batsman in the 50-over format over the last year.
Kohli was not only the most prolific Indian batsman in ODIs in 2010 but also finished the year as the second-highest run-scorer in the 50-over format behind South Africa's Hashim Amla. He scored 995 runs including three centuries and seven half-centuries in 24 innings at an average of 47.38 and strike rate of 85.11 last year, and further enhanced his reputation during India's recently concluded ODI series in South Africa. India may have lost the series 2-3, but Kohli, who batted at No. 3 throughout the series continued to be the best Indian batsman on display by far as he scored 193 runs at an average of 48.25 and strike rate of 79.42 with a highest score of 87*.
The number of runs that Kohli has scored since the start of 2010 is not only a measure of consistent performances, but is also just reward for the hard yards the youngster has put in to develop his game. Kohli had a brash attitude when he first represented India, but he has now mellowed down and is aware of his importance and responsibilities to the national team.
Kohli has always had all the shots in the book; however over the last year, he has learnt how to build an innings based on the match situation – an important trait in a top-order batsman. He is also an excellent fielder and has been on record recently stating he is working on his bowling as well.
Kohli is also a natural leader and an astute student of cricket, and these traits mark him out for greatness if he keeps a level head and keeps working on his game for the remainder of his international career.
In stark contrast, both Yuvraj and Raina have found run-scoring difficult of late, the most recent evidence of their struggles coming in the ODI series where the former scored only 91 runs at an average of 18.20 and the latter fared only a bit better scoring 111 runs at an average of 22.20.
Yuvraj has been scratchy in his last 20 ODIs as can be gauged by the fact that he has only scored 440 runs at an average of 27.5 and strike rate of 69.73 as compared to his career figures of 36.61 and 87.65 respectively. When he is on song Yuvraj is a delight to watch; in 2009 he scored 783 runs including two centuries and five half-centuries in 23 matches at an average of 39.15 and SR of 95.95.
Apart from the fact that he has failed to be consistent with the bat over the last 12 months, the most disconcerting aspect about Yuvraj has been his lack of application in the middle. He may be working hard in the nets, but Yuvraj has been a major disappointment over the last year.
Raina has been in much better form with the bat than Yuvraj, but he hasn't been as consistent in the last six-seven ODIs he has played as his technical deficiencies have been ruthlessly exploited. In his last 26 ODI innings, Raina has scored 742 runs at an average of 35.33 and strike rate of 93.92 with a highest score of 106. But, he hasn't scored a century since January 2010 and a half-century since his 71* against Australia in October 2010.
With both Yuvraj and Raina not being in the best of form, India runs the risk of its late middle-order and tail being exposed early in the World Cup if both the southpaws are part of the starting line-up. However, if Kohli comes in at No. 4, India is assured of consistency and safety in the middle-order, as the youngster can adapt his game based on the match situation. The need for an in-form and consistent batsman at No. 4 becomes all the more necessary as Dhoni himself has been searching for his best batting form of late. And, while Yusuf has come of age batting at No. 7 over the last couple of months, he can't be expected to salvage India's innings in every other match.
The deciding factor between Yuvraj and Raina could be their part-time spin bowling, and the former has the edge in this department. However, their bowling is only a bonus for India; their main job is to score runs and as of now this is a grey area for both the southpaws.
It won't be easy to drop either Raina or Yuvraj from the playing XI in the World Cup as they are proven match-winners, but for the sake of ensuring balance in the team and rewarding consistency, one of the two would ideally have to make way for Kohli.