A startling piece of statistics captures just how vexing and incrementally frenetic India’s search for a No.4 in One-day International cricket has been of late.
They have used 10 different players in the position since the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand – almost a different No.4 in every fourth match – and six (SIX!) since the Champions Trophy in England in June 2017.
In the ongoing series against Australia, India played Manish Pandey at No.4 in the first two matches before promoting all-rounder Hardik Pandya in the next two games. Pandya justified the move, scoring a match-winning 78 in Indore and a promising 41 in the spirited but eventually unsuccessful chase in Bangalore.
The confidence with which Pandya scored those runs prompted Virat Kohli to suggest after the Bangalore match that the crisis might actually be nearing its end.
“The plan to promote Hardik was to go after the spinner and get the quicks to come early into the game,” the India captain said. “He did that in Indore and he did it in this game. It might be a regular option, you never know. The guy (Pandya) has got a solid game, he’s got good defence. He’s got the technique, he’s not just a slogger. I think if he gains more confidence and understands how to take the game till the end and finish it more often, you never know he might be a regular at that spot.”
Pandya didn’t take the Bangalore match till the end. India lost the game, and as losses do —even inconsequential ones— it triggered another debate: Was Pandya batting too high up the order, leaving the lower order without a power-hitter? And, in doing so, were India pushing MS Dhoni, who these days struggles to tee off from the word go, too low down the order to make an impact?
It seems a convincing argument, but it relies on the hypothesis that Dhoni, if he were batting above the No.7 slot that he occupied on Thursday, would have won India the match. But, to make another hypothesis, had Dhoni, now in the autumn of his career, failed, the knives would have come out. His match-defining knock in Chennai just three ODIs ago would have been forgotten. The question then would have been: Does Dhoni, 36, even have a place in India’s scheme of things for the 2019 World Cup? While the India-Australia ODI engagement ends on Sunday at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium, the spot debate will likely spill over into the New Zealand ODI series scheduled later in October. But there is another point to consider: Is ODI cricket needlessly rigid about batting orders?
Impulse to straitjacket
The straitjacket of batting positions is almost antithetical to the dynamism of limited-overs cricket. In an interaction with The Indian Express a couple of years ago, Australian hockey guru and former first-class cricketer Ric Charlesworth had touched upon this unevolved aspect of cricket. “Cricket is pretty primitive,” Charlesworth had opined. “Take a batting order for instance, why is it such a sacrosanct thing? Batting is batting, you go in first or fifth.”
It sounds radical – blasphemous even – but it was something similar that Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff did at Ajax and Netherlands, and football was never the same again. “When we started interchange in hockey, people had to struggle, now when they are on-and-off they don’t even think about it, it’s because they have learnt new skills,” the Australian had said.
In cricket, Martin Crowe had done something identical with the bowling order at the 1992 World Cup, giving the new ball to the off-spinner Dipak Patel. While it’s not to suggest that Virat Kohli should send Jasprit Bumrah and Yuzvendra Chahal to open the innings at England 2019, surely there can be some room of unpredictability in the middle order. More so because the roles of No.4 to No.7 are fluid, depending mostly on the state of the innings.
Not a specialist’s job
While opening is still seen as a specialist job, and India’s best batsman Virat Kohli, coming at No.3 in a fifty overs game, is in most cases both an adequately cautious and sufficiently aggressive move, the choice of batsman on No.4 onwards needs to depend on match situation. Four-or-five for 55 while batting first demands a conservative approach, therefore a steadier hand, maybe even Dhoni, at No.6 or No.7, two for 147 in 25 overs in a steep chase, or two for 247 in 42 overs while batting first could be a perfect platform for Hardik Pandya to grab the game by the scruff of its neck from No.4.
India had tried to achieve something similar under Greg Chappell, with Irfan Pathan, not unlike Hardik Pandya today, opening a host of options for the team. But in mid-2000s, Chappell’s ideas were deemed a bit ahead of their time. Of course, they were not. Established batting orders have occasionally been upset in cricket for a long time. At Melbourne in 1937, with the Ashes on the line, Donald Bradman, staring at a wet wicket, actually sent his ‘Jasprit Bumrah’ and ‘Yuzvendra Chahal’ to open the innings. Don himself came four rungs down at No.7 and scored 270. One of the greatest innings cricket has ever seen came when the G.O.A.T. was batting out of position.
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