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Indian cricket team has eyes locked on the 2019 World Cup. The captain, coach and selectors are clearly working towards the prestigious title as they continue to chop and change the ODI squad for every series and the batting order, bowling combinations continues to be juggled. As things stand, no spot can be taken for granted. If the two leading spinners in the world R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja can be rested for multiple series, if Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav, premier bowlers and ones who played a crucial role in India’s road to 2015 World Cup semis, can warm the bench then anybody can.
While the spinners debate has been going on, the matter of concern at the moment is the very important no.4 batting slot. Like Tests, in ODIs this position is the link between the top-order and the lower middle-order and the right man needs to occupy it in order to keep the balance of the playing XI intact. A pinch-hitter is a gamble while a dead-bat is a big risk. No team would want to go either way and intends to find the man with the right blend to do the job. For India, Yuvraj Singh and Virat Kohli did the job in the 2011 World Cup triumph and it was Ajinkya Rahane who came out to bat at no.4 in six out of seven matches of the 2015 edition. The only time the right-hander didn’t was the opening match against Pakistan where Suresh Raina scored a fluent 74.
Unlike 2015, where the team stuck with one batsman for most of the tournament, 2011 World Cup saw India use as many as four players – Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Yusuf Pathan and Gautam Gambhir. India’s 2011 World Cup squad had players who could ease into any role with utmost ease. The openers were sorted in Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar, at no.3 they had Gautam Gambhir and the slots to follow could be easily filled by Yuvraj, Kohli, Dhoni, Raina, Pathan. Yuvraj and Kohli enjoyed success at this position and the two hit individual hundreds. India played nine matches in the World Cup, Kohli played at no.4 in five of those but back then there wasn’t an assured spot in the middle-order. It was more about playing the situation rather than position. MS Dhoni’s promotion in the final against Sri Lanka further validates the team thinking. With Muttiah Muralitharan extracting good purchase out of the wicket, Dhoni promoted himself up the order, ahead of the in-form Yuvraj, and rest, as they say, is history.
Six years later, and two years before India begin their quest for a third ICC World Cup title, they find themselves in a similar situation. The openers, like the 2011 edition, seem sorted and reserves like Ajinkya Rahane and KL Rahul only make it a good a problem to have. With Kohli at no.3, there is no point looking further. The big question arises for the spots to follow. No 4, 5 and 6 are still the spots up for grabs and think-tank continues to tinker with different players for different situations. Don’t be surprised if you again see Hardik Pandya coming out to bat at No 4 to hit a spinner out of the track like he did to Ashton Agar in the third India-Australia ODI.
Since 2015 World Cup, where India used Rahane for most of the tournament at No 4, India have used as many as 11 players for the spot. Yuvraj, Dhoni and Manish Pandey have played most games and Yuvraj’s tally of 358 runs is the most successful. It is worth bearing in mind that 150 out of those 358 runs came in a single innings against England and the elegant southpaw has struggled since then. Dhoni, however, has been steady and has scored 318 runs in the eight matches he has played. Pandey’s numbers make a disappointing reading as he has scored 183 runs in eight matches with a best knock of a unbeaten 104. Rahane, too, has enjoyed success at this position but the team management has made it clear that the right-hander will be preferred for the opening slot. Pandya’s 142 in 4 matches are encouraging and the all-rounder is expected to play the role of a floater, according to match situation.
It’s a throwback to the Gary Kirsten and Greg Chappell days when as many as three players would be ready with their pads on and go into bat according to the situation at hand. It was successfully implemented when Kirsten was in charge and the team certainly benefited from not having a rigid batting position structure. Pandya’s elevation, Dhoni’s demotion and Karthik experiment are signs of things to come as India continue to play the roulette for the middle and lower middle-order.