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Dhoni in the middle of India's middle-order mess

Around noon on Saturday, MS Dhoni walked onto the ground jauntily to wholesome applause from the Indian fans.

About 75 minutes later he walked back, again to a lot of loud noise, except this time it was full of boos. In that reaction lay the story of the day for India: how their middle order, commanded by Dhoni, struggled for intent, ideas, and inspiration.

This is nothing new. Even last summer, Dhoni had been booed by the Indian fans for perhaps the first time his long and celebrated career. And the crowd in Southampton might say their reaction was warranted.

Dhoni had walked in during the 27th over. The projected score at that point as per ESPNcricinfo's Forecaster was 294. With Kohli bubbling at the other end, Dhoni's responsibility was simply to keep handing the strike back to his captain. Sounds simple, doesn't it?

Watch on Hotstar (India only): Highlights of Kohli's fifty

But remember Lord's last year? India needed 183 off 23 overs chasing England's 322. Kohli had just got out. Dhoni had just walked in. Twenty overs later, when Dhoni was out, India had managed to add only 75 to their total. Dhoni had departed for 37 off 57 balls. As the most senior batsman he held the whip, but England suffered no pain and it was India that went home licking their wounds. The case wasn't too different on Saturday.

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With about 24 overs to go, it was a crucial time for India and Dhoni had to play a crucial role - the support cast to Kohli, who had been playing a different match compared to the rest of the Indian batsman. The partnership between Kohli and Vijay Shankar had given them a semblance of control at the halfway stage until the allrounder got a bit too ambitious.

Yet, in the matter of an over - from part-timer Rahmat Shah - Afghanistan regained their grip, never losing it for the rest of innings.

Rashid Khan, battered by England few days ago, was all flat and short and continued to be so against Dhoni too. But the batsman failed to take advantage as he kept hitting to the hands of the cover fielder. Desperate, Dhoni then tried to stretch himself from the crease to push the ball square. It was futile. Rashid walked away with a maiden over.

By the end of the 29th over, Dhoni had played out 13 deliveries, 11 of which were dots. Soon Kohli would depart, leaving Dhoni in charge of the lower order. Forecaster's prediction had come down to 273.

If you have followed Dhoni's batting in the last few years, you sensed the routine. He assesses the pace of the pitch and then figures out what a par score is. Then he'll just bat, without ever trying to take any risk, until the very last few overs. His partners too would follow his instructions, without question. Kedar Jadhav is a Dhoni confidante and seems to trust his senior more than himself. Both men had have patiently stitched together partnerships at difficult times like in Melbourne in January.

The problem for Dhoni here was a long tail with India playing four specialist bowlers. That meant he had to stay till the end and hope Jadhav and Hardik Pandya accelerated from the other end. However, Afghanistan were equally smart.

Their spin-dominated bowling attack made excellent use of a slow pitch - which also took subtle turn and offered awkward bounce - by being accurate and running through the overs. India's slow start, when they scored only a handful of boundaries, was coming back to haunt them. Between Kohli's wicket in the 31st over and the 37th, there was no boundary. Although Jadhav and Dhoni followed that up with two fours in a space of a few deliveries, the projected score had slipped further to 248.

There was an eerie silence across a ground filled with Indian fans. The tension was threatening to boil over. Four of the five overs between 40 and 45 yielded only two runs each. Dhoni's formula had flopped, he charged Rashid only to be stumped. His departure brought joy to the crowd because they then got to watch Pandya. Remarkably the Forecaster revised its prediction up by three runs after Dhoni's wicket.

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Despite saving face courtesy their all-weather bowling attack, India came face-to-face with their worst fear in this match. That middle order. There would be clamour to blame Dhoni - he himself might admit he batted too slowly on Saturday - but the fact is the entire team has failed to convincingly address this problem since the last World Cup.

The lack of intent and absence of urgency created a mess that India were lucky to get away with. Against a stronger opponent, or even if Afghanistan had been more switched on, Kohli's men would have been embarrassed.

Having the world's best top order has not helped India in this regard. With Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli scoring nearly two-thirds of the team's runs for a long time, the middle order rarely gets time in the middle. Without time in the middle, it remains vulnerable. That's why India registered their second-lowest run rate (4.6) after 25 overs batting first since the 2015 World Cup.

Only twice has this team posted a total of 280 or more when their top three could score fewer than 100 runs while batting first since the last World Cup. In comparison England, Australia and New Zealand, three other favourites this World Cup, have managed it five times.

So, not only do India need more firepower, but also a flexibility in approach. Dhoni can continue believing in his way of leaving it till the end - but he can afford to do that only if his partner at the other end is scoring quickly.

The Indian think tank also needs to figure out whether it wants Dhoni to continue playing finisher, or if he's better suited to batting higher up the order - the knock-on effect is that they miss out on Pandya power. He had blasted Australia out of the game in a matter of minutes; he needs to face as many balls as possible.

India had one weakness coming into this World Cup, and Afghanistan exploited it beautifully. They were actually chasing history until Mohammed Shami decided to flip the script.