There could be fables written about it. There could be a movie made out of it. There could even be a whole world war stemming out of it. India’s no. 4 conundrum has moved mountains and created massive headaches. So much so that an entire coaching era might end because of it. India have tried as many as 13 batsmen in the crucial position since the 2015 World Cup but none of them have fit the bill so far. This includes trying as many as four batsmen at the position in the 2019 World Cup alone.
That India have a massive quandary in their hands is without a shade of doubt. They have tried nearly every other performing batsman in domestic cricket at the position with little success. Ambati Rayudu was zeroed in as the man to do the job around eight months before the World Cup. Virat Kohli and head coach, Ravi Shastri, went to lengths to explain why Rayudu was the right man for the responsibility but by the time the World Cup arrived, Rayudu was not even in the squad.
The chairman of selectors, MSK Prasad, then identified Vijay Shankar as the right candidate for the job during the World Cup squad announcement. Shankar played two matches at the World Cup at that position but was subsequently ruled out of the tournament with an injury. Even if he hadn’t been injured, it seemed doubtful that Shankar would have continued there.
Rishabh Pant was brought into the team as a replacement player and was India’s new scapegoat at the position – he had only once batted at the position before in ODIs – but he carried on for four games until the end of the World Cup without much luck.
The World Cup semi-final exit might still hurt given that India were one of the favourites to lift the Cup. Veteran Indian batsman Sunil Gavaskar termed the World Cup performance a “below par” one. While that in itself is questionable, the fact that India still seem too rigid with their plans even now is surprising. The next major ODI event is quite some time away and, in a phase, where experimentation is ideal, India seem content to be moving with the flow.
The No 4 position in this Indian ODI setup is very different to what it is for other teams for one simple reason: India have a top-heavy batting line-up.
India’s top three have been so good that most of their middle-order flaws remain enveloped in darkness until a Trent Boult or a Mohammad Amir rips through their top-order. All of India’s batting strengths are focused at one end of the see-saw that the other half is hanging precariously in mid-air. Numbers show that the top three consistently outperform their counterparts from the other top six teams in ODIs but the rest of the middle-order don’t quite stack up.
The ideal move in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup would be to break this top three and move Virat Kohli to No. 4. Even Ravi Shastri deemed this a plausible move just before the World Cup but the optimism of flexibility remained off the field and rarely made an appearance on it.
“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,” Shastri said in an interview with Cricbuzz. “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. maybe Rayudu, or someone else, could bat at number three, and Kohli comes in at number four. We wouldn't want to disturb the opening combination. Separating the top-three could make the batting stronger. Why should I lose my best batsman early?”
Before we go all gaga about this suggestion, it is ideal to check why Kohli is a better fit for the team at this position than the newbies India have been trying out. Of the 13 batsmen that have played at this position since the end of the 2015 World Cup – a lengthy enough four-year period – the only ones to find reasonable success are batsmen who are experienced and have played other roles in the side.
Ajinkya Rahane was the incumbent in the position after the 2015 World Cup but from MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh to Rayudu and Dinesh Karthik, several experienced batsmen were tried in the role and found much better success than the youngsters thrown into the deep end in this highly scrutinized spot.
The likes of Manoj Tiwary, Manish Pandey, KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant and Vijay Shankar struggled to make any impact in the position. Even if Pandey went on to make a sensational hundred in Sydney in 2016, the runs dried up and he was in and out of the team after a while.
India’s No. 4 position is sandwiched between a heavily scoring top-order and a lower middle-order which cannot accelerate. This makes this position all the more important. If an experienced batsman like Kohli moves down to No. 4, the benefits are manifold.
For one, the newcomer is pushed to No. 3 where he is between a world-class opening pair and arguably the world’s best batsman. This gives him the freedom to express himself without too much scrutiny on whether he can fill a void in the line-up. The likes of Shreyas Iyer, KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant are all capable top-order batsmen still looking to cement their position in the side. The security of Kohli coming in behind them could just be the boost they need to find their feet in International cricket.
Even a youngster like Shubman Gill, whose inclusion is overdue, could benefit from lesser pressure to perform, which is impossible at the No. 4 position. If India do decide to go with Pant at No. 5 to boost the striking capabilities in the death overs, he could also immensely benefit from Kohli’s presence alongside him.
Kohli might have to sacrifice on a few meaningless bilateral hundreds in order to reverse this hoodoo. But if it benefits the team in more ways than one, shouldn’t he bite the bullet and push himself down the order? Presently, the bilaterals have little context, India have leeway to experiment and instead of throwing a few careers down the drain, Men in Blue should take cue from the success of experienced batsmen at No. 4 and opt for their skipper to own the position.
It isn’t like he is averse to the role either. Kohli has batted in the position a lot in the early stages of his career – 38 ODIs to be precise - and has an average of 56.48 with seven tons. Given the complete control he has over his batting now, the move should be a seamless one for him. After all a lot of ODI greats ranging from Javed Miandad and Aravinda de Silva to Mahela Jayawardene and his IPL teammate, AB de Villiers, have occupied the position before and found great success.