When Vijay Shankar walked out to bat against Afghanistan on Saturday, he became the 12th batsman to occupy the number four spot for India in the last two years.
Yuvraj Singh, Dinesh Karthik, KL Rahul, Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Manish Pandey, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Ambati Rayudu – all of them have batted at number four in the last 24 months since the last Champions Trophy ended on June 18, 2017.
Why, even Rishabh Pant has batted at this spot against Australia in March earlier, before Shankar did. In fact, it was Shankar’s first time batting at number four in any form of cricket.
12 different batsmen. 24 months. That’s a run of two months per batsman. Staggering is the word you are looking for, if attempting to describe this strange happenstance. The other word you might use is tiresome.
These two words also reflect amply on the team selection aspect of Kohli’s captaincy. He is always chopping and changing; trying to find that perfect combination that transcends conditions and opponents in any given situation, on any given day. His mind seems to be in a state of flux, perhaps reflecting on his personality. He is an aggressive captain, yes, brash even, and he brings this trait to the selection meeting, no holds barred.
Through Yuvraj’s experience, Karthik’s adventurism, Rahul’s promise, adaptability of Jadhav and Pandya, Dhoni’s dependability, Rahane’s previous exposure to number four, Rayudu’s unorthodoxy, Pant’s explosiveness, Shankar’s stability and his own genius – captain Kohli has fashioned a never-ending experimentation.
Flexibility, the buzzword
And none of these names have been a solution. What balances this skewered equation, at least in Kohli’s mind perhaps, is his instinct. There can be no other explanation to it, and the simplest example of it is the lack of opportunities for Pandey in the last two years.
“Our top-order bats deep, and we need flexibility in the middle order considering the situation we might be in towards the latter half of the innings,” Kohli has said umpteen times. That word ‘flexibility’ underlines why instinct is such an important aspect of his decision-making.
The problem herein, though, is that plan A has now gone bust. In the last two years, Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma scored 55 per cent of India’s ODI runs. If they didn’t score, India would struggle – it is the general rule of thumb. Now, this holy trinity is reduced to a pairing with Dhawan’s injury – does the same ‘flexibility’ plan still work? No is the obvious answer, found in the games against Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Rahul, as an opener, scored a half-century at Old Trafford and threw away his wicket at Southampton – both of his innings had direct consequences on how India finished.
Rahul may yet learn from his mistakes, or he may not. Does India have a plan B though? Does the team management feel they need to find a more permanent solution to this problem, given the top-order burden now rests on Rohit-Kohli? The answer is floating in the air – India’s innings against Afghanistan was a mix of yes and no, both.
The fact that Shankar was given a second consecutive game represented a design towards consistency. He succumbed to the conditions, and great bowling. With Pant on the bench, will he be retained against West Indies? The temptation to experiment again will always be there – how could it not be – and if Pant has to come into the picture, sooner the better.
The Dhoni conundrum
Does this make a case for more chop-and-change? Perhaps, albeit the glitch arises because of the team management’s indifferent attitude to fix this persisting issue. In turn, this shines a bright light on the manner Dhoni – and rest of the middle order – batted against Afghanistan.
“After Virat got out in the 38th over and till the 45th over we hadn’t scored many runs. There were not enough outings for the middle order batsmen till now and that put pressure on them. But the intent could have been much better by the middle order batsmen,” Sachin Tendulkar told an Indian news channel.
Afghanistan sent down 34 overs of spin, conceding only 119 runs. Kohli’s dismissal was a seminal moment in the game. India were placed at 135-4 in the 31st over then, and as per usual cricketing logic, should have doubled their score. Why wasn’t their middle order able to do so? Wasn’t it flexible enough to adapt to this particular situation?
Much of the blame lies at Dhoni’s footsteps here, and rightly so. His 28 runs off 52 balls were an obvious struggle. It isn’t to do with the low number of runs or how he batted to get so few of them. The issue is with an inane belief in him that, despite his slow starts, Dhoni can make up for lost time once set. In most situations, particularly when pacers hold sway, it turns out to be true.
But this was a peculiar instance – the spinners were on top. Why is this point vital? Well, simply put, the present-day batsman Dhoni is, he struggles to rotate strike against spin. Unless they bowl full to him, and in his arc to hit big (which they don’t), he finds it tough to push the ball off square for singles and doubles.
It is a hard fact, one that nobody is willing to accept, and hence part of the blame lies at the team management’s doorstep too, Kohli included.
Roll back to the Australia series in January – Dhoni had a similar struggle against spinners at Sydney, albeit he was able to resurrect India’s innings because he had Rohit scoring freely at the other end. The conclusion here isn’t to say Dhoni shouldn’t be part of the squad, no.
That ship sailed long ago, and clearly the Indian team management thinks of him as a benefit in this avatar as well. Even so, there has to be some semblance of acceptance about Dhoni’s tangible batting capability at the moment.
The larger truth, as a result, is starting to hurt this middle order.
Jadhav, when not bowling, is a pure batsman. Why wasn’t he sent at number five ahead of Dhoni? Why indeed was Pandya held back, knowing his hitting ability against spin well? The mind goes back to that word again – flexibility – and wonders why the Indian think tank failed to adhere to its watchword when the situation most demanded it. Because one man’s aura blinded them, thus failing to sight the obvious.
Further, what are the odds that this mistake could be repeated? High, to be honest, because what transpired against Afghanistan is, in fact, a microcosm of India’s middle order and number four troubles.
For the past two years, they have simply used ‘flexibility’ as an excuse to tide over this situation. In other words, the team management – captain, coach and selectors – has looked for a quick fix every time, and now in the middle of this tournament, they do not seem to have a permanent solution when in dire need after Dhawan’s departure.
Indeed then, it is tiresome to think that Indian cricket with its vast resources was unable to sort out the number four mess. And it is staggering to acknowledge that Afghanistan are the first team to expose this key chink in India’s armoury at this 2019 World Cup.