10. The RG Problem

62% of India's runs are scored by its top three. So a dip in form of the openers can be a worry for the team

India’s World Cup campaign finally gets off the ground today. Their opponents South Africa are playing their third game, having already lost to both England and Bangladesh. Apart from zero points, South Africa are coming into the game with injury problems. Dale Steyn has been ruled out of the tournament, and Lungi Ngidi is not playing today thanks to a hamstring injury. Hashim Amla sat out of the last game with a head injury though he is fit to start today.

India have had mixed results in their two warm-up games, losing badly to New Zealand and then beating Bangladesh comfortably. A point of concern in both games was the form of the opening batsmen Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, who both went cheaply in both matches.

India’s dependence on the top-three is rather well known. Since the 2015 World Cup, its openers have scored 38% of the team’s runs, which is the highest among all teams playing in this World Cup. India’s number three has scored 24% of the team’s runs, far ahead of any other team’s.

Among the more well-documented problems arising from the dominance of India’s top three (Sharma, Dhawan and Virat Kohli) is that the team goes into the World Cup without an established Number Four. KL Rahul, who has shown good form through the IPL and in the warm-up game against Bangladesh, will play that position today but his place in the team is far from settled.

From this perspective, Sharma and Dhawan’s poor form in the warm-ups is a matter of concern. Also of concern is Sharma’s style of playing in ODIs, starting off incredibly slowly. In fact, if we look at openers who have played at least 30 innings for their teams since the end of the last World Cup, Sharma gets off to the slowest start, scoring an average of 5.2 runs in his first 10 balls (only Tamim Iqbal is worse, at 4.9).

It is not until he has batted for 50 or 60 balls that Sharma catches up with his peers in terms of expected runs scored. The problem is that in 50% of his innings Sharma scores doesn’t survive until ball 30.

Sharma’s survival trajectory is remarkable. He is among the worst in terms of survival at the 30 ball stage, and among the best at the 40 ball stage. In other words, he almost never gets out between balls 30 and 40. In fact, if he bats 30 balls, then there is a 50% probability that he bats for a 100 balls!

So in a way, Sharma’s first 30 balls, where he is expected to score only 23 runs and have a 50% chance of getting out, is a sort of price paid by India for the big and quick innings he will play if he bats for longer.

I’ve taken so much time writing this edition that we now know that South Africa has won the toss and elected to bat first. Perhaps they’ve been stung by their two losses chasing, but by doing so they are allowing India to play to their strength (chasing), and also letting go of the early morning swing which might have helped get Sharma early.

If Sharma does survive his first 30 balls in the chase and go on to get a big one, Faf du Plessis might regret his toss decision once again.

PS: There are four leg-spinners playing today’s game. In case you missed it, you might want to read the earlier edition of Criconometrics dedicated to leg spin.