It’s less than a month since India’s World Cup 2019 came to a grinding halt in the hands of New Zealand at Manchester and the Virat Kohli-led unit walk into a bilateral series against West Indies to forget and move on from the semi-final exit.
With the next ODI event four years away, long enough for Virat Kohli to suggest it is “too far away”, the focus is on the youngsters who have earned a spot in the team in the aftermath of India’s exit from the World Cup. The likes of Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant, Manish Pandey and KL Rahul will be under the microscope as they step into this series.
If not all, at least three of them are vying to fill that one elusive slot in the batting order that has given the Indian management quite a few headaches – the no 4 position.
Since the 2015 World Cup, India have tried as many as 13 batsmen in the position. But none of them have been able to nail down their spot in the crucial spot. The Indian top three have been so good that any talk of the no 4 position in the past got drowned by the overwhelming mountain of runs Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli made.
But now with India having time in their hands, identifying the right person for the position is quintessential. They have thrown careers to the deep end by pushing youngsters, including the four aforementioned, to this position. With these bilaterals lacking context, it might be an ideal time for India to experiment.
Should they break the irresistible top three and ask their best batsman in the format – Virat Kohli – to step down to number four?
Controversial? Yes. But the right move? Maybe.
A few months before the World Cup, Ravi Shastri had suggested India are open to this move in an interview with Cricbuzz.
“The good thing about this Indian top-three is we can separate them, if conditions and situations demand. Someone like Virat Kohli can go to number four, and we can put a good number three to bring more balance to the batting line-up. That’s flexibility for you, and for big tournaments like the World Cup, you have to be flexible to see what’s the best balance for the side,” the head coach said at the time.
Nothing of the sort happened at the World Cup. But now, the first series after the World Cup might just be the right time to make this move.
The problem with no 4, as India think, might not just be about personnel. It could be about the make-up of this Indian team. With a dominant top three, a waning MS Dhoni in the lower middle-order and no power hitter aside from Hardik Pandya, a no 4 is under pressure to bridge the good and the average.
There is little security for the batsman at that position to play to his freewill given that the lower belly has struggled for runs. With the best three batsmen in the side stacked at the top of the order, the number four batsman could be bogged down by the expectations of matching these incredible three top order batsmen.
All of this is too much pressure for a newbie coming into the team and as records suggest, the only ones post the 2015 World Cup to find some success there are all experienced batsmen – MS Dhoni, Ambati Rayudu, Yuvraj Singh, Dinesh Karthik and Ajinkya Rahane – who have fulfilled other roles in the side previously. The newcomers who were pushed to the deep end at no 4 – Pant, Vijay Shankar, Rishabh Pant, Manish Pandey and Manoj Tiwary – all came back with empty buckets.
As things stand, Iyer or Rahul is expected to slot into the no 4 position in the first ODI against West Indies on Thursday at Guyana. But should that batsman, whoever it is, be given a freehand by moving him to no 3 behind Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan? With Virat Kohli coming in at no 4 behind him, the youngster is under lesser pressure.
Dhoni being on a break means that there is very little security down the order for India. This only makes the no 4 position all the more crucial. By moving Kohli to no 4, India would be making a statement that the captain is prepared to shun some of those meaningless hundreds for quality knocks from a difficult position.
It would not just boost the confidence of a new no 3 in Rahul or Iyer but also give the likes of Pant and Pandya a great launch pad to attack in the latter half of the innings with Virat Kohli holding anchor.
Some of ODI cricket’s best batsmen have adorned the no 4 position. From Aravinda de Silva and Javed Miandad to Mahela Jayawardene and AB de Villiers, the no 4 position needs someone who has a touch game and a power game. It’s too massive a task for a newbie to handle and the right move now would be to at least experiment with Kohli at 4. With time in their hands, India can always go back to how things are now if the move doesn’t work out.