“When you are batting first, you don’t know how much to set. So that is up to the two people batting in the middle. Who is the guy who wants to take that initiative and who is the guy who wants to or has to bat till the end? You see the patterns of teams that are getting big scores, that is the window they are targeting and get those 20-30 extra runs.” This was Virat Kohli in January on having batsmen accelerate through overs 30-40.
In some ways, it can also be the blueprint of the Indian captain’s thinking about the No. 4 batsman, the one significant slot waiting to be filled and the one that the selectors will obsess over the most before announcing the World Cup team in Mumbai on Monday.
This is what raises some concerns: Most of the options for that No 4. spot don’t have the ability—or rather the inclination and temperament—to guide the team through a mini-crisis. Nearly all of them are flashy and prefer counterattacking.
Here are some of the options being considered for that spot: Ambati Rayudu, KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Vijay Shankar and Dinesh Karthik. Apart from MS Dhoni, who is vice-captain Rohit Sharma’s personal preference for that slot.
Eleven of the 15 names are straightforward choices—Kohli, Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami. Then there is a separate battle for the extra all-rounder spot between Ravindra Jadeja and Shankar.
Rayudu, whose stock has rapidly fallen this year and his Indian Premier League form (139 runs at an average 19.71 in eight outings) not helping either, is a gutsy, skilful, positive batsman who can provide that initiative to accelerate that Kohli is talking about. No wonder, last October, Kohli himself had validated Rayudu’s chances at No. 4. But for some reason, he mostly prefers counterattacking in tough situations and gets himself into trouble with odd shot selection. Sometimes, it seems he bats as if he is Aravinda de Silva of 1996 vintage; but he isn’t.
Rahul at No. 4 is such an untested commodity that it’s difficult to pontificate how he will go. Most of his shots in powerplays come with a last-instant extension of arms that takes the ball over the infield.
Shankar or Jadeja? Maybe both
Given the turns their careers have taken in the last six months, the toss-up between Vijay Shankar and Ravindra Jadeja would burn down to this fundamental question--whether the squad requires someone who can give you 30 runs extra or someone who can concede 20 runs fewer. For Shankar hasn't quite demonstrated his bowling utility. Likewise, Jadeja's batting prowess has plunged in the shorter versions. Shankar can, at best, chime in with five decent overs on a good day, while Jadeja can deliver a few lusty blows towards the end. The argument cuts both ways. With the pitches in England expected to be flat and boundaries shorter, a quick-scoring batsman is a precious option, more so considering India's wobbly middle order. Moreover, Shankar can switch roles between an anchor, accumulator and aggressor, depending on the situation. But then, if you include him Virat Kohli could be forced to ditch the fifth specialist bowler, which he prefers. So it could render the bowling thin. Conversely, if you include Jadeja, the batting could weaken. The last time he scored 40-plus runs was five years. But his bowling-craft has considerably evolved—Kohli can trust him for 10 economical overs—but a third spinner in the squad could prove redundant. But Jadeja offers a different dimension to Kuldeep and Chahal. Amidst all the attacking alternatives, he is someone who can dry up the runs at one end and build the pressure in the middle overs, seldom prone to fluctuations of form. If only Shankar's bowling were more resourceful and Jadeja's batting more impactful, the decision would have been more number-driven Another option is to take both, which wouldn't be a regressive decision, as both bring varied skills to the team. Someone who can give you those 30 extra runs could be as valuable as someone who can help you concede 20 runs fewer. Depending on the opposition, surface and form, they can be accommodated into the playing XI.
With men back, and assuming the opposition have the sense not to feed him with short ones like Hardik Pandya did the other night in an IPL game, does he have the maturity to work the ball around and still be able to get the big shot to jailbreak and accelerate? Has his game developed, after the bad patch before IPL, to allow him the confidence to steer the team through a crisis in the middle overs?
Even in T20s, India seem to like giving Karthik just a few overs; it’s clear they don’t quite trust him to hold his end for 25 overs, steering and guiding the team along. He is another batsman who thinks counterattacking is the way to go at any juncture – sometimes even his defensive options when the ball does something or the situation is tight can be different: he would walk down the track or do some such silly thing and let himself down.
Pant, a step too big
Pant is an interesting option but No.4 might be a step too big at this stage. It would have been much better had he been entrusted the entire last year with that job and his progress monitored. And he learnt how to balance his attacking urges with other sensible run-making options. He could be a middle-order option if India decide to push Dhoni up to No. 4.
Shankar is seen as the contender in the all-rounder battle which, considering the presence of a seam-bowling option in Pandya, probably doesn’t help him much. Jadeja offers more solidity with the ball – with him a captain can know what exactly to expect; with Shankar it still can be a bit of hit and miss and some finger-crossing.
In that sense, it’s bit of a pity that Shankar is slotted in that battle as he is probably more suited for the No 4 spot. He has the skill to take the team through a crisis and has the big shots to take it away in the end, but again, he hasn’t been fully tested yet. If only this identification had been done earlier and last year had been used to test him out more, we would have known for sure. Now the argument against Shankar might be that he is still too raw and it’s too early to give him that important spot. Would he, in a crunch situation, trust himself? Has he grown enough to do that?
Iyer, a wild shot?
Shreyas Iyer’s name too has been bandied about. Another batsman who can do the role of accelerating but like Rayudu, he can be almost one-dimensional in his approach to a semi-crisis. Attack and more attack. But if India are looking at the No 4 slot as a launchpad to a huge total, he too might come into the reckoning.
So that’s the trouble with most of the options: None are combination of caution and aggression, not many can be trusted to balance the attacking urge with sensible middle-order batting like Yuvraj Singh provided in 2011.
So, as one of the selectors told this newspaper, “we have to play with the cards we are dealt with”. Going by that Kohli’s statement about the middle overs, the Indian thinking seems to revolve round acceleration (how to turn 295 into 325 or 310 into 340) and they might opt for an aggressive option which might backfire in a crucial game in the World Cup but eh, who said selection is easy?