Did you know how many times Virat Kohli has batted at No 3 in T20Is? 40 innings in 56 matches.
Now, did you know how many times Suresh Raina has batted at No 3 in T20Is? 19 innings in 66 matches.
What is the relevance of these figures? It was in 2011, after the World Cup win, when Kohli cemented his spot in the Indian XI that he first batted at No 3 in T20Is. The rest is history, is the obvious adage, for he averages 57.75 at that position in the batting order. There is not much argument against the best batsman in world cricket at the moment batting at his favoured spot, irrespective of format.
This is where Raina’s case comes into focus. It is not to say that Kohli was almost a certainty at No 3 as soon as he broke into the T20I side. No, it took time for him to become the superhuman batsman he is today. In that interim period, Raina was the then-skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s preferred choice for T20Is.
And why not? Raina is synonymous with No 3 when it comes to T20 cricket (domestic, league and at any other level). In fact, it can be said with some confidence (without even checking statistics) that Raina has had more impact at No 3 when it comes to the Indian Premier League (IPL), yes, more than Kohli. Just compare the winning history of the Chennai Super Kings to the empty trophy cabinet of the Royal Challengers Bangalore. It might sound blasphemous to Kohli’s humongous fan army but there is certifiable truth in this claim.
Overall, Raina averages 34.70 at No 3 in T20Is, with a strike rate of 138.49. Until 2012, when he was the first choice for this spot, he averaged 37.66 at No 3 in 14 games, at strike rate 137.80. It might seem ordinary, but only because Kohli is an absolute run-hungry monster – an average of 50-plus in T20I cricket is almost a joke!
In other words, Raina has had a fairly successful outing for India as the No 3 batsman in the shortest format, until at least the arrival of the batting legend avatar that Kohli currently is.
The underlying point herein is what transpired in the first T20I against South Africa at Johannesburg on Sunday. Raina’s selection into the playing XI was as obvious as the sun rising in the morning. Yet, there was a mild surprise when he walked out to bat at No 3, ahead of Kohli who had just finished scoring 558 runs in six ODIs.
Mild, because this tour has been about chopping and changing things around to suit the strategic calls of the Indian team management. Nothing is surprising anymore when it comes to Kohli’s selection or strategic calls; instead it is better to invest time in understanding the motive behind such moves. This particular move made sense, especially given how the Indian top order tonked the ball to all parts of the Wanderers as 78 runs came in the first six overs.
Clearly, the Indian batting line-up wanted to go hammer and tongs against the Proteas because they had realised early that even 180 was not a par score on this batting beauty of a pitch. But the overall implication of Raina’s selection, and indeed immediate ‘promotion’ in the batting order, is far graver in the longer scheme of things.
The first, of course, is to do with India’s frailty in the middle order, particularly in the T20 format. There is a pertinent school of thought that Dhoni should make way for a younger, more ballistic keeper-batsman in T20Is (read Rishabh Pant). Yet, it hasn’t happened because in the run-up to the 2019 World Cup, the Indian team management doesn’t differentiate between ODIs or T20Is, to not only experiment with new faces but also for testing similar near-similar tactics. It also explains why Dhoni doesn’t move up to No 4 at least in T20Is, given his waning hitting prowess.
This is where Kohli’s decision to move down the order (in T20Is) comes in. By batting at No 4, he provides an anchoring presence in the middle order, one who can give impetus to the innings in the death overs. Imagine Kohli finishing things off in style in the last six-seven overs – it is a scary proposition for any T20I bowling attack. In the short term, this shores up India’s T20I batting line-up.
Now, the second pointer becomes valid. With Kohli moving down, Raina is allowed to bat where he is most effective in the T20 format. Any runs he scores in this position will certainly not go unnoticed and serve only to make his case stronger for a return to the ODI squad as well. Mind you, India currently have only Kedar Jadhav serving as a middle-order batsman/part-time spinner and that is not a reliable option. In the lead-up to the World Cup, Raina’s form could have a telling impact on who is given this job for 2019 in England.
Thus, not only does it explain Raina’s ascension to No 3 but, at the micro level, it is also representative of his timely comeback to the international fold. Simply put, Raina has to succeed in order to further his India career and also provide a veritable spin-bowling all-round solution going ahead.
In this light, his short seven-ball-15-run stay at the wicket shouldn’t be judged too harshly. He bought into the strategy and hit out from the word go, making use of the licence given to hit as he saw fit. And it is imperative that the Indian think tank persists with this move going ahead. The fact that this is now properly the T20 season – with a tri-series coming up in Sri Lanka and the IPL afterwards – will only help rebuild Raina’s confidence step by step.