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The 2019 World Cup is fast approaching and teams now are looking to finalize an XI, that they want at the World Cup, this edition of the Asia Cup provides perhaps the last chance for experimentation. For the Number Two team in ODI Cricket, many boxes have been ticked over the course of the last 18-24 months.

India boast arguably the best limited-overs batsman in World right now, captain Virat Kohli, two of the best openers in ODI Cricket, in Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, two quality limited-overs pacers in Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah and two brilliant leg-spinners who have dominated in overseas conditions, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav.

While the crux of the team looks really good, India have had a problem for a very long time and which just does not seem like improving: Their Middle Order. Positions four and six are up for grabs since a long time and with MS Dhoni set to bat at Five and Virat Kohli rested, this Asia Cup could be the best chance for a few to stake a claim and catch the plane to the World Cup next year.

Contenders for the Number Four Slot

Ambati Rayudu

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The 2018 IPL was like a breath of fresh air for Ambati Rayudu’s international career. Amassing 602 runs in 16 innings, Rayudu hit a century and three fifties in the season at an average of 43 and a healthy strike rate of 149.75. While he was selected for the recently concluded tour of England, he was dropped because he failed to clear the Yo-Yo Test, a fitness test every player needs to clear to make it to the team. Putting that setback aside, Rayudu is back in the team for the Asia Cup and will hope to impress the selectors, just like he impressed everyone in the IPL.

His ODI numbers are really good. In 34 matches, he has scored 1055 runs at an average of 50.24 at a strike rate of 76.28 with two hundreds and six fifties. His record at Number Four is also decent although his strike rate of 68.59 at that position is a little worrying. In ten innings at Number Four, Rayudu has scored 286 runs at an average of 40.86 with three fifties. He will hope that he gets the nod ahead of Manish Pandey at the Asia Cup for at least the group stage.

Manish Pandey

Manish Pandey’s international career has been lukewarm ever since his heroic hundred in Sydney in early 2016. His chances since have been few and in those few chances, he has flattered to deceive. While his IPL season was also poor by his standards, he found form in the recently concluded India A Team Quadrangular Series, featuring India B, Australia A and South Africa A. Leading the India A team to the title, Pandey finished as the tournament’s highest run scorer with 306 runs in four innings, without being dismissed even once.

That being said, if given a chance at the Asia Cup, failure to perform could lead to Pandey being dropped for a long time. His record at Number Four is decent too but since his hundred in Sydney, he has only scored 79 runs in six innings, at an average of 15.8 at Number Four. His overall career record too is not what does justice to his talent. 432 runs in 22 matches at an average of 39.27 is not a true indicator of his potential. If he were to play ahead of Rayudu, Pandey will have to maximize the opportunity to make it to the World Cup.

Contenders for the Number Six Slot

Kedar Jadhav

Kedar Jadhav found early success in his ODI career when he hit a hundred and a 90 in the three-match ODI series against England in early 2017 and finished the series with 232 runs. That, though, was a long time back. Since, he has had scored only 330 runs in 16 innings, at an average of 27.5. Being picked up by the Chennai Super Kings as their most expensive Indian player for the 2018 IPL, Jadhav missed the entire season due to injury after the first match. His ability to bowl a couple of overs of off-spin in the middle might just give him a chance ahead of Dinesh Karthik at the Asia Cup.

While his recent form has been patchy, Jadhav has had phenomenal success at Number Six. In 13 innings, he has scored 529 runs at an average of 58.78 with a strike rate of 121.89 consisting of two hundreds and a fifty. He has been used as a finisher in many games by India and Jadhav will hope that if given a chance, he can reclaim his place in the side and make it to the World Cup.

Dinesh Karthik

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When Dinesh Karthik made his comeback against the West Indies at Number Four after the Champions Trophy last year, he was very successful in that position. He made a telling contribution in India’s Nidahas Trophy win this year and had another successful IPL season where he scored 498 runs at an average of 49.8 at a strike rate of 147.77 with two fifties. Being viewed as a finisher after his T20 performances for both country and franchise this year, Karthik would be viewed as an option for the Number Six slot.

His numbers at Six though are modest. In nine innings, he has scored 169 runs at an average of 28.17 with a strike rate of 82.84 with one fifty. Having batted predominantly in the top order, Karthik has lukewarm numbers as a finisher. After having an appalling tour of England, it is quite possible that Jadhav gets the nod ahead of him for at least the first match.

KL Rahul to take Virat Kohli’s Spot?

With Virat Kohli being rested for the Asia Cup, KL Rahul will be the favorite to take his spot at Number Three. That being said, Rahul has had a torrid time in ODI Cricket off late and has just played once at Number Three for India. This could mean that Rayudu could bat at Three, owing to his superior record in that position and Rahul having to drop to Four.

With the Asia Cup campaign starting for Team India, they would like to finally sort out this middle muddle in the build-up to the 2019 World Cup. With players like Suresh Raina and Ajinkya Rahane not picked in the team, it gives chances to players like Rayudu, Karthik, Pandey and Jadhav to stake a claim in the side. There is only one chink in India’s ODI armor and they would hope to fix that here at the Asia Cup.

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