At least on statistical evidence, there is enough logic for MS Dhoni saddling onto the number five spot, where he averages a more than healthy 56.20 from 58 matches. He delivered a verbal treatise on the challenges confronted by number five batsmen, while also inadvertently admitting that in his stead at that spot, either the relative international rookie Manish Pandey (one ODI and 2 T20Is) or the yet-to-debut all-rounder Gurkeerat Singh Mann could get a look in.
Men as they are of varied skill-set and utility, they shouldn’t have been vying for the same spot in an ideal world. Pandey is a top-order batsman who has evolved himself from a sometimes mindless aggressor to a perceivably sensible batsman, while showing the requisite effervescence on the field. Gurkeerat is more of a lower-order utility man, despite flattering first-class numbers to shore up his case as a proper batsman. Limited-over conventions paint him as an automatic number six, or even seven, than someone capable of occupying the top half of the line-up.
However, these are less than ideal times. The strategists have, at least temporarily, shunned the unfruitful Suresh Raina experiment. Ambati Rayudu flickered just sporadically. As the skipper himself feels, there aren’t too many “readymade” products coming through. With the squad-composition primarily tilted to bowlers or bowling all-rounders — with just five specialist batsmen in the side — Pandey and Gurkeerat could find themselves unusually pitted against each other, racing for a role they aren’t exactly accustomed to donning.
Both may not seem like the archetypal number five, who are masters at situational play, in modulating their tempo to suit the circumstance. But that’s where Dhoni wants them to cut their teeth in. “I feel it’s important for the selected youngster to get a good opportunity to bat. If he comes at number six, he might manage just 30 runs on a good day and 10 on a bad day. After 15 matches, he will be averaging just 15 and the media will be asking why we are persisting with him. So I want them to get good opportunities and number five is the place I can trade. In that way, he can gain exposure and we can assess how he can handle pressure at this level,” he reflected.
In his only ODI, against Zimbabwe last year, Pandey presented a decent case for himself at five, walking in at the 19th over and crunching 71 off 86 balls to pull India out of strife. But Australia at their home deck is a more demanding proposition, and he could be taking guard much earlier in the match.
More than technical adaptability, Dhoni feels it’s a case of flexible mindset. “In the past, we had cricketers who used to open for their domestic sides but bat down the order for India. There were also those who opened for India but used to bat in the middle order for the domestic side. A lot of our success was down to that we had so many good batsmen who could bat at different positions. So this flexibility has to be there,” he stressed.
Pandey, who has a head-start over Gurkeerat, would believe he can make the required adjustments. But Dhoni forewarns him: “If you look at the history of Indian cricket, there have been just two or three batsmen who have done really well at number five. It’s a difficult place to bat.”