India’s majestic form has kept a huge concern hidden so far - the No.4 conundrum

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India’s majestic form has kept a huge concern hidden so far - the No.4 conundrum

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Subhayan Dutta

09/25/2017

Despite the invincible run of the Indian side that has led many to believe that the squad is flawless and perfectly balanced, the dilemma of number 4 spot still prevails. With multiple options available, India should aim to nurture one before the 2019 World Cup rather than experiment recklessly.

The India cricket team doesn’t seem to put a single step wrong at the moment as Virat Kohli's side's confidence grows with every game. After the comfortable 9-0 drubbing of Sri Lanka away from home last month, the Men in Blues have now sealed the ODI series against Australia with two games to go, thereby becoming the No.1 ODI team in the rankings.

If luck does play a major role in every sportsman’s career then Kohli is wearing it like an armour at the moment. Apart from the fact that their opponents have been largely error-prone, India saw two lost toss decisions going their way in Sri Lanka and always seem to be finding unlikely match-winners in every pressure situations. However, though the current side looks perfect for the upcoming 2019 World Cup with all their bases properly backed-up, India still remain largely unsettled at the number 4 position. Their winning streak has so far carried that spot as a passenger but it doesn’t diminish the extreme importance of a skilful number 4 batsman in the ODI format.

India have encountered three major top-order collapses in the last few games where a good number 4 was quintessential but fortunately for Kohli, victory prevailed in all the cases. MS Dhoni pulled the side out of the muddle against Sri Lanka at Pallekele, in Chennai Hardik Pandya came to India's rescue and in Kolkata, an unusual Bhuvneshwar Kumar worked the magic. There was no one in London, in the Champions Trophy final, and while many wrote it off as poor luck, stats reveal that India could see those occurrences oft repeated unless attended immediately.

Since the 2015 World Cup, India have experimented with 11 different batsmen in the number four position. Two years have passed and they are yet to find the perfect fit, and the biggest reason for that has been the management's unwillingness to give players enough time to settle. Even amidst this disconcerting situation, India have won six of the nine bilateral series played since then, which has all the more contributed to the reckless approach.

It took two poor knocks for Manish Pandey, 0 in Chennai and 3 in Kolkata, who had taken the number four spot from KL Rahul after Sri Lanka, to get replaced by Pandya in Indore. Pandey has been brilliant for Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL in that role and could bring his genius to the number four position if given time, which needs the selectors to have a more open-minded approach. Strangely, India were still in search of a concrete number 4 when Australia had visited in 2013. Suresh Raina was a work in progress then but the southpaw’s repeated failure to cope with Mitchell Johnson’s bouncers saw him dropped from the side. The likes of Dinesh Karthik, Ambati Rayudu and Yuvraj Singh, all came to the fore over the years but could hardly concrete their spot.

What makes the fourth position so difficult to master is the varied situation a player encounters after coming in. In case of an early top-order collapse, a number four will need to hold the mast for a strong 100 to 200 run-stand, while coming after a steady knock by openers would demand him to go for the quick runs. In short, a number 4 batsman should have the ability to control the tempo of the game, a clear vision of required run-rate in the next few overs and a sufficient skill set to play spinners and pacers equally well. And in the ODI format, this is way tougher than it seems, but the good news for India is they have numerous options to fill the gap if they are given enough time.

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Critics and former selectors had even voiced their opinion when Yuvraj Singh wasn’t included in the ODI squad to face Australia. But such has been the fate of the number-four project that the players of yesteryear like Yuvraj and Raina still fancy their chances to make a comeback into the side. Strangely, Yuvraj poses a strong case in this regard, a tally of 358 runs in nine innings over the last two years, still remain unchallenged. And more than the failure of the players taking that role, it has been the selectors’ fault that such a tally is yet to be crossed by anyone in the number four spot. However, going back is hardly an option now.

There have been suggestions of promoting either Dhoni or Pandya up to the coveted role but their brilliant ability to finish innings has prevented India from doing that. Besides nurturing Kohli as a skipper, Dhoni also has a huge task of making sure Pandya takes his place potentially when he retires, which would require the duo to keep playing at 6 and 7. India have also risked missing out on good batsmen at number 8 by disposing of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja to the Test format now. With both Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal unproven prospects with the bat, Dhoni and Pandya’s late role becomes all the more important. Hence, it leaves India with three to four options before the next World Cup to fill that role - KL Rahul, Kedar Jadhav, Ajinkya Rahane, and Manish Pandey.

Rahul has been asked to change his style to fit in the number 4 role, but a player who has been predominantly an opener for most of his career will find it difficult to adapt to the demanding role. Ajinkya Rahane has mostly been a backup opener now following his man of the series display away in West Indies. It leaves India with Pandey and Jadhav as viable options. Jadhav has played over 30 ODIs for the side and averages a decent 46.20. Pandey, who has been playing in the middle-order throughout his career and broke into the limelight with a maiden ODI hundred away from home against Australia, is also a great option. While he has been quite underwhelming in the ongoing series, his talent remains undeniable.

India have the biggest luxury of time ahead of the World Cup to make that decision, as they face New Zealand, Sri Lanka and South Africa in back-to-back series next. And as Virat Kohli always says at the press-conferences, the selectors will now have to ‘define concrete roles’ for the players, even if it demands giving them 10-15 matches to fit the side’s need.

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