With the Indian cricket team playing a large number of One Day Internationals in preparation for the 2019 Cricket World Cup, The Field will take a look at a significant talking point about how the squad is shaping up after specific milestones. In the third part of the series, the focus is on India’s No. 4 conundrum. Read parts one and two here and here.

KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Dinesh Karthik, Shreyas Iyer and Ajinkya Rahane.

What is the common thread connecting these names? At some point in the last eleven months or so, they have all been in contention to bat at number four in the Indian ODI line-up.

The experimentation that began with a selection meeting announcement in Pallekele during India’s tour of Sri Lanka last year has met with a high degree of success. The trial of wrist spinners: check. Settled first-choice pace pairing of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah: check. Hardik Pandya growing in stature as fifth bowler/balancing all-rounder: check.

(Also Read: New spin kids on the block)

Then there are a few other names – Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and MS Dhoni, along with Virat Kohli – virtual certainties in the playing eleven. Even so, there is a gaping hole in that middle-order which, with ten months to go for the 2019 ODI World Cup, is yet to be filled. The revolving door policy hasn’t borne fruit.

Where did the problem begin?

The answer to this is deeply rooted in India’s preparations for the 2015 World Cup.

Back in December 2013, after the South African tour, Yuvraj Singh was completely shunned from plans. Attention turned towards trying out other options, whilst there was also re-strategizing. Five full-time bowlers (inclusive of three pacers) quickly became the norm, thanks to two new balls.

If Dhoni took up no.6, Raina was front-runner for no.5 and the duo often inter-changed positions. For no.4, Rahane and Ambati Rayudu were the two contenders, as early as the New Zealand tour (2014).

From January 2014 to the end of 2015 World Cup, Rahane scored 415 runs in 15 matches at no.4 (average 31.92). Clearly, it wasn’t a case of fish-taking-to-water for Rahane was also the back-up opener. When Rohit Sharma was injured during the ODI series in England later that year, Rahane was asked to open.

This constant shuffling impacted Rayudu’s statistics too. From January 2014 to March 2015, he scored 185 runs in 8 matches at no.4 (average 37). At no.5, Rayudu scored 144 runs in 6 matches (average 28.80). He wasn’t getting a consistent run, yet was doing just enough to retain his spot in the ODI squad. Clearly, Rahane (along with Dhoni and Raina) was the preferred middle-order choice, and for good reason.

“Rahane is very good at playing pace and on quicker wickets in Australia-New Zealand, we felt that he was the right batsman for the job,” said then-selector Saba Karim.

Therein, also lies the conundrum. Karim then went on to confirm to this writer that Rahane also has ‘a problem of picking up pace of scoring on slower, sub-continental tracks’. Perhaps the best example of this was South Africa’s ODI series in India (2015-16). In the first two matches, he batted at no.3. At Rajkot, he batted at no.6 because the Indian team management preferred quick-hitting batsmen (read Dhoni and Raina) in a tough chase on a slow Rajkot wicket.

Rahane did score 45 and 87 batting at no.4 in the last two ODIs of that series, as India lost 3-2. But it wasn’t enough. And by the time 2016 came about, India’s search for a proper no.4 batsman had begun afresh.

The Dhoni Conundrum

In January 2016, during the five-ODI series in Australia, Dhoni did not bat at no.6 at all, instead batting at no.4 thrice and at no.5 twice. After India lost 4-1, he talked openly about this ‘promotion’.

“Most of the time I find it tough to hit the ball straightaway and so I need to bat a few overs. I would like to bat at no.4, but spots are all taken. So I will continue to bat lower down and it will continue to be my responsibility,” said Dhoni, in a rare moment of revelation.

If we look at the statistics, Dhoni averages 51.25 in 321 ODIs (strike-rate 88.13) in his ODI career. Unsurprisingly, he has batted at no.4 in only 27 ODIs, wherein his average rises to 55.90 (strike-rate 94.98). On this evidence alone, it can be suggested that he could have been an optimal candidate to shoulder the no.4 responsibility.

However, these statistics and conclusions thereof need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Age has mellowed the batsman in him, and the England series was another pertinent example. His aforementioned candid admission can thus be considered a seminal moment wherein ‘Dhoni the accumulator’ came forth, albeit he still exhibits flashes of powerhouse brilliance.

Since the 2015 World Cup, Dhoni has averaged only 45.50 (strike-rate 82.81) in 59 ODIs. Furthermore, batting at no.4 in 9 ODIs in these last two years, his average dips to 35.55 (strike-rate 77.10).

Back then in 2016, when Rahane was going out of contention and Manish Pandey had just scored his maiden hundred at Sydney, there was still a case for Dhoni to bat at no.4. Still captain, Dhoni instead influenced this decision (based on his strategic thinking) in a different direction.

A team source confirms that after finishing matches for India all these years, ‘Dhoni was simply reluctant to go higher up and bat selfishly’ in this last stage of his illustrious career. You can praise him for it, or shower criticism, but the underlying point is that the call to continue to bat at no.5 (or lower) and groom other ‘finishers’ was the obvious one.

As things stand, Dhoni is no longer in running for no.4, if he even ever was in the first place.

Muddle in the Middle

But he is definitely the first choice keeper-batsman for the 2019 World Cup.

Chief selector MSK Prasad has given clear indications about it and skipper Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri are of the same opinion. And nothing has changed yet, despite widespread criticism of his slow approach against England.

In turn, this has resulted in two fixed positions in India’s middle order, with Kohli at no.3 and Dhoni at no.5 (or lower if situation warrants). Now, the entire batting line-up revolves around this dual pivot and it is just a matter of filling in the blanks. Easier said than done.

Going back to 2016, Pandey was the obvious choice against New Zealand at home. His poor form (76 runs in 5 ODIs) saw Yuvraj once again roped in for the ODI series against England. It was a surprising call. Yet, a crucial factor missed herein is that Kohli was now captain. With the 2017 Champions Trophy coming up, the need to fully evaluate available options was understandable.

The loss to Pakistan in the final at the Oval ultimately provided a template for India’s plan for 2019.

Clearly, India could not afford both Dhoni and Yuvraj in the same playing eleven. Lack of form and fitness has made sure the latter is currently out of running. Yet, when dust settled in Sri Lanka, Pandey still wasn’t the last man standing.

It was KL Rahul instead, who was given a run in the garb of experimentation. He had done well in 2016-17 to warrant inclusion in all formats, yet this move didn’t make sense. If Rahane was a stopgap arrangement for 2015, could India afford to repeat that mistake in 2019?

This is where the experimentation takes a perplexing turn. Rahul hadn’t endured a happy run at no.4 in Sri Lanka and in South Africa, Kohli confirmed that he would only be considered as a third-choice opener. Five months later though, Rahul batted at number four in Trent Bridge and Lord’s, as Indian team’s think-tank went back to the Karnataka batsman. It is this going round in circles which is further confounding the situation.

Earlier, Jadhav (18 runs in 3 innings) and Pandya (150 runs in 5 innings) batted at no.4 too, against Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand. In the former case, it was a matter of giving opportunity, and for the latter, it was a sense of making impact against Australian spinners. Jadhav misfired, while Pandya was successful to an extent, almost inspiring the team management to chop and change at will. Even Karthik (90 runs in 3 innings) got a run during the home season.

The way things are right now, Pandey and Karthik are the only two proper middle-order batsmen in this melee. So, when you zero back in onto the no.4 debate, the needle first points towards Pandey. Here, the question to ask is, just what has he been doing all this while?

What happened to Pandey?

Since his Sydney hundred (in January 2016) till the recent tour of South Africa, India have played 43 ODIs. Pandey has only featured in 18 of those matches. Surely, he warranted a longer run in the side? It wasn’t the case. After one poor series against New Zealand, he didn’t even make the ODI squad for the England tour.

Further, in those 18 ODIs, Pandey has batted at no.4 on only 7 occasions – twice against Zimbabwe (June 2016), twice against the Kiwis (that 2016 series), once in Sri Lanka (2017) and twice against Australia (2017). He averaged 36.60 with a highest of 36 against Lanka in Colombo.

Surely, it can be seen why the team management isn’t convinced. “I have tried doing my bit, but I also feel that I could have done a little more (at no.4). I wish I could have delivered more,” Pandey said.

Even so, the constant chopping and changing doesn’t help the confidence of any cricketer. “Yes, it does work on your mind a lot. But then that is what cricket is all about. You have to wait for your chances, especially to play for a team like India when you have so many stars and legends after legends,” he added.

Perhaps it was a pointed reference to the Indian team’s hierarchy. It cannot be denied that certain names get on the team-sheet before others. Leeway in form is often handed out at the pleasure of the management. Pandey, with his lack of game time in recent months, clearly doesn’t make that cut. In such a scenario then, it is about making your opportunities count.

Shreyas Iyer is a perfect example herein, with scores of 88 and 65 against Sri Lanka (December 2017). So when chance came in South Africa, Pandey was again side lined for an in-form batsman. Even so, there was another curve ball ahead of that ODI series. Iyer wasn’t the first-choice no.4, as Rahane surprisingly rose back in contention.

“I had said earlier that Rahane would be looked at as a third opener but that situation can change because he has batted at No. 4 in a World Cup before. These conditions are such that you get to play fast bowling throughout the innings so he becomes a strong candidate for No. 4. Other than that, we also have Iyer and Pandey. We don’t want to be one-dimensional. It depends on whose technique is more suited to what spot especially in that particular country,” Kohli had said in Durban, revisiting India’s pre-2015 strategy.

Not taking their chances

Rahul’s experience in this merry-go-round was but a microcosm of what has happened in Rahane’s case.

From June to October last year, Rahane had opened in 11 consecutive ODIs against West Indies, Sri Lanka and Australia, scoring 585 runs at average 53.18 inclusive of 1 hundred and 7 half-centuries. Simply put, this was the best phase of his international limited-overs’ career even if it coincided with a perplexing poor run in Tests.

“Clarity from the team management helped me. They said that I am the third-choice opener so I am happy to wait for my chances. The experience of batting at different positions in the batting order has helped me. I am enjoying my batting a lot more now,” Rahane had said in a chat with this writer before the South African trip.

When asked if he would mind batting in the middle order again, if asked to do so, Rahane came up with a part-expected answer. “If the team management wants me to bat at no.4, I will respect that. Currently they have told me to open, so I respect that decision as well. That has always been my thinking, do what the team asks of you,” he replied.

It is funny how life came full circle for Rahane when he batted at no.4 in a 270-run chase at Durban then. He scored 79 off 86 balls on a two-paced pitch, put on 189 runs with Kohli and helped India to their first ever victory at Kingsmead. In doing so, he ended this debate for the next five matches atleast even as the Indian wrist-spinners took the spotlight.

And yet, over the course of that six-match series, Rahane faltered once again with only 61 runs coming in five games after Durban. That vicious circle started again – Rahane dropped for England, Rahul back, Rayudu in until he failed the Yo-Yo test, and then when nothing else worked, Karthik batted at no.4 in the third ODI.

Here, some portion of blame falls at these batsmen as well. While the team management is guilty of following a revolving door policy in the garb of experimentation, atleast they are giving enough chances to all contenders, one by one. It is sheer inconsistency on part of those who do not make it count.

Instability at no.4 is the root cause of India’s middle-order problems. The likes of Dhoni, Hardik Pandya and Suresh Raina do not know what to do. They cannot play in the fifth or sixth gear, which is expected of them, and instead have to loiter around at the crease in third gear. It is a recipe for disaster, and this loss against England proved it as much.