KL RAHUL, HARDIK PANDYA, Rishabh Pant, Vijay Shankar. These are the four batsmen who have batted at number four for India in the 2019 Cricket World Cup. It is not coincidence, but a grand design—the team management likes to keep its options open when it comes to the middle order. So much so, when Shankar walked out to bat at number four against Pakistan (June 16th) in Manchester, he became the 12th batsman to do so in 24 months.
Yuvraj Singh, Dinesh Karthik, Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Ambati Rayudu—these are the other names to have batted at number four in the last 24 months since the Champions Trophy ended on June 18th, 2017.
That’s an average run of two months per batsman, and this mega merry-go-round, a literal game of musical chairs, began in Sri Lanka in August 2017. Ahead of the five-match ODI series, the team management—captain, selectors, et al— were of the opinion that Rahul should be accommodated in the playing eleven.
“He is too good a batsman to be left out,” Kohli had said, backed by Rahul’s outings in the Indian Premier League. Even so, it was an experiment that lasted only two innings, before a change was needed as Rahul found it tough to adjust straight away. Thus began an endless cycle and churning of names, despite the fact that Yuvraj Singh—India’s last permanent number four batsman—had vacated the spot only two months prior.
While Singh had been included in the India squad as a short-term arrangement for the 2017 Champions Trophy, this problem first began back in December 2013, when he was first dropped from ODI cricket. As then-skipper MS Dhoni looked to build towards the 2015 World Cup in Australia-New Zealand, Singh was completely shunted and attention turned towards other options.
Rayudu and Rahane were the main contenders, with Suresh Raina taking up number five and Dhoni himself slotting in at six, the latter two changing positions as per the situation.
From January 2014 to the end of 2015 World Cup, Rahane scored 415 runs in 15 matches at number four, averaging 31.92. Subsequently though, when Rohit Sharma was injured during the ODI series in England later that year, Rahane was asked to open and this experiment halted.
Rayudu then found himself at number four, and from January 2014 to March 2015, he scored 185 runs in 8 matches averaging 37. He was more a back-up option, with Rahane the clear choice going into the 2015 World Cup.
“Rahane is very good at playing pace and on quicker wickets in Australia-New Zealand, we felt that he was the right batsman for the job,” said then-selector Saba Karim. “But he could never be a number four batsman like Yuvraj across all conditions, because he had a problem of picking up pace of scoring on slower, sub-continental wickets.”
Singh was not the best player of spin either, but he had a charismatic flair as regards batting that helped him transcend situations. Rahane, in comparison, was a more limited batsman. As it is, he was only a stop-gap option for the 2015 World Cup. Point to be noted here then—Karim made this statement in a freewheeling conversation with this writer in autumn 2016, which meant the uncertainty in the middle order was already almost three years old. Team India was nowhere close to finding a solution.
“All of you keep asking, where is Rishabh Pant? Where is Rishabh Pant? He is here now, batting at number four,” says Rohit Sharma, cricketer
As past captain, Dhoni’s role in this quagmire is as big as Kohli’s.
Back in January 2016, during the Indian tour of Australia, Dhoni first confessed a desire to bat at number four. During those five ODIs, he didn’t bat at number six at all, instead batting at number four thrice and at number five twice. After India lost 4-1, he talked openly about this ‘promotion’.
“Most of the time I find it tough to hit the ball straightaway and so I need to bat a few overs. I would like to bat at four, but spots are all taken. So I will continue to bat lower down and it will continue to be my responsibility,” said Dhoni, in a rare moment of revelation.
Despite his current struggle, Dhoni averages 50.58 in 348 ODIs. He has batted at number four in only 30 innings, wherein his ODI average rises to 56.58. On this evidence alone, it can be suggested that Dhoni could have been an optimal candidate to shoulder this responsibility, particularly at that point in time.
It is no longer the case as of today. Consider the game against Afghanistan (June 22nd) in Southampton. They played a four-spinner attack, sending down 34 overs of spin, conceding only 119 runs. When Kohli was dismissed, India were placed at 135-4 in the 31st over then, and as per usual cricketing logic, should have doubled their score. It didn’t happen, and much of the blame lies on Dhoni’s shoulders, as he struggled to score 28 runs off 52 balls.
More than the lack of runs, it is about the manner in which he scored them. The issue is with an inane belief in him that, despite his slow starts, Dhoni can make up for lost time once set. In most situations, particularly when pacers hold sway, it turns out to be true. But this was a peculiar instance—the spinners were on top. Why is this point vital?
Simply put, the present-day batsman Dhoni is, he struggles to rotate strike against spin. Unless they bowl full to him, and in his arc (which they don’t) to hit big, he finds it tough to push the ball off square for singles and doubles. It first became evident in the 2018 ODI series in England, when he was booed off the pitch at Lord’s in the second ODI.
Back in January 2016, during the Indian tour of Australia, Dhoni first confessed a desire to bat at number four. During those five ODIs, he didn’t bat at number six at all
Dhoni’s struggles against spin are a hard fact, one that nobody is willing to accept, and hence part of the blame lies at the team management’s doorstep too, Kohli and selectors included.
Does this mean he shouldn’t have been part of the 2019 World Cup squad? No. Despite his obvious limitations as batsman against a particular type of bowling, Dhoni is still a valuable asset to this Indian side. They will always have a better chance of winning this trophy with him than without him, and this pertinent decision was made long ago.
And yet, it is the lack of acceptance about his reduced ability as batsman that is hurting the middle order as well. Perhaps, a semblance of that ‘acceptance’ has come about— since that Afghanistan game Dhoni has not batted higher than number six against West Indies, England or Bangladesh.
The question to ask here is what further attempts were made to rectify this number four conundrum even a year ago?
Dhoni being the first-choice keeper-batsman for the World Cup, and with Kohli at number three, it meant the Indian batting revolved around a double pivot. With the top- order stable in Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, it should have been an easy matter of filling in the blanks. It wasn’t so.
Back in 2016, Manish Pandey was the obvious choice against New Zealand at home. His poor form (76 runs in 5 ODIs) saw Yuvraj Singh once again roped in for the ODI series against England. It was a surprising call, and a short-term one as previously mentioned. After the defeat to Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final, Singh was no longer in contention (albeit he did play in West Indies immediately thereafter).
IN SRI LANKA, two years ago, the experimentation started with Rahul. He didn’t endure a happy time as previously mentioned too, and over the course of the next 13 ODIs against Lanka, Australia and New Zealand, India had used as many as five different batsmen at number four. Manish Pandey was not among them, ignored continuously until the tour of South Africa in 2018, and thereafter dropped completely.
Surely, after his maiden ODI hundred in Sydney (January 2016), Pandey had warranted a longer run in the side. But he featured in only 18 out of 43 ODIs India played until the South African tour (2018). He also endured a poor series against New Zealand at home (2016-17), which was a big let down, according to the Indian team management.
“I think finally we have found our number four batsman for the future. Let us groom him properly,” says Yuvraj Singh, former cricketer
“I have tried doing my bit, but I also feel that I could have done a little more (at number four). I wish I could have delivered more,” Pandey said in South Africa, after scoring a match-winning effort in one of the three T20s. He wasn’t the only victim of this non-stop chop-and-change policy.
Shreyas Iyer is a perfect example herein, with scores of 88 and 65 against Sri Lanka (December 2017) rising in contention for the South African tour. Pandey was ignored in favour of Iyer, who was then ignored in favour of Rahane who made a comeback during that six-match series. He scored a solitary half-century, and then had a quiet series, even as Kohli and Dhawan raked in big runs in the top-order. It didn’t make sense for Rahane had earlier been the designated third opener in case either Dhawan or Rohit were injured.
From June to October 2017, Rahane had opened in 11 consecutive ODIs against West Indies, Sri Lanka and Australia, scoring 585 runs at average 53.18 inclusive of a hundred and seven half-centuries. Simply put, this was the best phase of his international limited-overs’ career even if it coincided with a perplexing poor run in Tests. But only 61 runs in the last five matches in South Africa meant he was finally out of reckoning, once and for all.
That vicious cycle started again—Rahane dropped for England, Rahul back, Rayudu in until he failed the yo-yo test, and so on. Here, some portion of blame falls at these batsmen as well. While the team management was guilty of following a revolving-door policy in the garb of experimentation, at least they were giving enough chances to all contenders, one by one. It is sheer inconsistency on the part of those who do not make it count.
The other way to look at this is the excuse for flexibility. Number four is a vital spot in any ODI batting order, and it cannot be in a state of flux. For the past two years, the team management has simply used ‘flexibility’ as an excuse to tide over this situation. It made the situation dire when Dhawan was ruled out of the 2019 World Cup with a fractured thumb, shifting immense pressure on Rohit Sharma and Kohli, especially with Dhoni regressing even further as an international batsman.
Where does it leave the Men in Blue in the middle of the 2019 World Cup then?
“All of you keep asking, where is Rishabh Pant? Where is Rishabh Pant? He is here now, batting at number four,” joked Rohit Sharma after the loss to England (June 30th) in Birmingham, when asked if he was surprised to see the youngster walk out to bat at that spot in a tall 338-run chase.
Pant was not originally part of India’s World Cup squad, and was flown in as replacement for the injured Dhawan. It was surprising, not to see him at number four, but indeed flying out ahead of Rayudu, who was on stand-by too. More importantly, Rayudu had been India’s designated number four in the latter half of 2018 and also against Australia-New Zealand in 2019, scoring 639 runs in 21 matches at average 42.60. A sudden dip in form towards the end of that stint and he was suddenly out of reckoning.
With Rahul moving up to replace Dhawan, Pant’s inclusion hinted that the team management wanted someone who could speed up proceedings in the middle order. It was particularly the need of the hour with Dhoni taking his time against spin, Jadhav not finding the best form, and a bulk of scoring responsibility lying on the shoulders of Hardik Pandya.
In that light, Pant has had a decent, agreeable start to his stint at number four. Against England (this past Sunday), he was a bag of nerves but against Bangladesh, he guided the innings well particularly after India lost three wickets in the space of six overs. His 48-runs-in-41-balls knock helped inflate the total to 300-plus, and his untimely dismissal was the reason why India didn’t breach 330 on a tough pitch.
“I think finally we have found our number four batsman for the future. Let us groom him properly,” tweeted Yuvraj Singh during Pant’s knock.
India need to give Pant a long rope at number four to stabilise things in the middle order from a long-term point of view. It just might help them in the short term as well, for further chop-and-change in the middle order will only cost them the World Cup.