Suryakumar, Iyer, and India's problem of plenty

Chawla: Suryakumar gives India a good headache (0:53)

Piyush Chawla on 'match-winner' Suryakumar Yadav and his chances of making the World Cup XI (0:53)

The last time India went into an ODI World Cup, they had problems in their middle order. They had a fading great at No. 5, a batting allrounder whose bowling they seemed to have lost trust in at No. 6, and a revolving door of No. 4 options, none of whom got a proper run in the side in the lead-up to the tournament.

They have a problem this time too, but it's a problem of plenty. A problem so acute that one of their middle-order options may possibly have slipped out of India's first-choice World Cup XI on a day he scored a century of breathtaking skill, in the second ODI against Australia in Indore.

Only four India batters have scored over 1000 ODI runs at a 40-plus average and a 90-plus strike rate while occupying Nos. 4 to 6. That small group includes both Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul.

A month ago, before the start of the Asia Cup, they would have been odds-on to start the World Cup at Nos. 4 and 5.

Now? Rahul almost certainly makes the starting XI. He's probably India's first-choice keeper even though Ishan Kishan took the big gloves on Sunday, and his ODI average this year is only a few decimal points short of Shubman Gill's, which is quite a feat in 2023. His last five innings include a century, two fifties, and a knock that may well have been even better than those three, a 44-ball 39 on a raging Colombo turner against a rampant Dunith Wellalage.

Iyer? Not so straightforward. He has struggled with back injuries over recent months, and in the time he's spent in and out of the side, other batters have come in and shown what they can do. Even so, Iyer was probably still ahead of Kishan in the middle-order queue when he went in to bat on Sunday. And over the course of a breezy, 90-ball 105, he probably built himself a significant cushion.

Until Suryakumar Yadav happened.

Suryakumar was always going to be a compelling option because he has a one-of-a-kind skillset. He probably has no equal in T20s in picking an area of the field and hitting the ball there, no matter its line and length, against pace and spin.

In T20 cricket, Suryakumar mostly bats after the powerplay, when the bowling team is allowed five fielders outside the 30-yard circle. In ODIs, Suryakumar would expect to do a lot of his batting in overs 11-40, when teams are only allowed four fielders outside the ring. In theory, this would mean more vacant areas to target while having more time to get his eye in and more room to be selective with his shot choices.

To go from theory to practice isn't always straightforward, though, as Suryakumar discovered while scoring only two fifties and averaging 24.40 over his first 25 ODI innings.

Chawla: Iyer was totally in control

Piyush Chawla is impressed with the intent the India batter showed against Australia

But India had no doubts over his ability. On the eve of the first ODI against Australia, their coach Rahul Dravid gave him as big a vote of confidence as any you'll hear in a press conference. "We've picked our team for the World Cup," he said, "and Surya is in it."

At that stage Dravid was answering a question about Suryakumar's place in India's 15. Since then, in the space of two ODIs played over three days, Suryakumar may have moved the needle considerably.

The 49-ball 50 in Mohali, an innings of pared-down stroke production in a chase of 278, was Suryakumar's reminder - to himself as much as anyone else - that he can bat like an ODI No. 6. The unbeaten 37-ball 72 in Indore was a revelation of what only Suryakumar, among India's batters, can do as an ODI No. 6.

There are others in India's squad capable of hitting four successive sixes off a tall, fast-medium bowler like Cameron Green. But can they hit them as Suryakumar did, in chronological order, over backward square leg, fine leg, extra-cover and forward square leg? Can they stretch across to the off side and flick-sweep a seventh-stump ball over square leg, as Suryakumar did off Sean Abbott, and two balls later slice open their bat face to direct an off-stump yorker between keeper and short third?

There aren't too many others anywhere in the world who can do these things, or by any other means hit the same ball to multiple parts of the field. Jos Buttler and Glenn Maxwell are two names that come to mind.

On potential, Suryakumar could raise India's ceiling in much the same way Buttler and Maxwell do with England and Australia. And while you have a point if you argue that two innings aren't enough fuel to merit the comparison, go back to the early ODI careers of Buttler and Maxwell. Buttler didn't lift his ODI average above 30, once and for all, until his 26th innings. Maxwell didn't manage it until his 39th innings. Suryakumar is going through a similar journey.

These early struggles only show how difficult it is to bat in the manner of these mavericks. They take more risks than most batters, and they're intimately acquainted with failure. When they get it right, though, they broaden their teams' range of possibilities. The SKY, if you will, is the limit.

These, then, may be the two options India will weigh as the World Cup draws ever closer.

A top six of Rohit Sharma, Gill, Virat Kohli, Iyer, Rahul and Hardik Pandya has a formidable look to it, but there's a certain sameness to what Nos. 3, 4 and 5 bring to the table. Even Hardik is at a stage where he's perhaps at his best when he has time to build an innings.

Compare that to Option B: Rohit, Gill, Kohli, Rahul, Hardik, Suryakumar; a top six that potentially covers every base other than left-handedness.

Rohit, Kohli and Hardik will be back in India's squad for the third ODI against Australia, India's last proper match before the World Cup. How they line up in that match, in Rajkot, may well point to how they line up in Chennai on October 8.