In the months that have passed since the Champions Trophy that took place in June, India’s main focus has been on finding the perfect middle-order batting line-up. Although most of their batsmen looked settled at their positions, the No 4 position seemed to be available for the taking as none of the batsmen have been able to perform well in that slot. India have tried and tested the likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Manish Pandey, KL Rahul and Kedar Jadhav at that position, but, none of them were able to seal the berth for themselves.
However, Hardik Pandya’s promotion to No 4 in the last couple of matches has worked wonders for India. He has proved his mettle as a middle-order batsman in both the third and fourth ODI against Australia. He helped India to a comprehensive victory with his innings of 78 (off 72 deliveries) in the third ODI, following it up with a 40-ball 41 in Bengaluru. Jadhav and Pandey have also shown some consistency after the tweak in the batting order. While Pandey has chipped in with a couple of useful 30s at No 6 whereas Jadhav impressed with a knock of 67 runs in the fourth ODI.
But, this tweak in the batting order has once again pushed MS Dhoni to No 7 that doesn’t suit his playing style anymore. In recent times, we have seen that Dhoni’s instant big-hitting abilities are on the wane, which means he can’t start hitting the big ones after walking out to bat straightaway. He needs time to settle down before he can do what he does best. The No 7 batting position, therefore, is neither helping him nor India in any way.
Dhoni is at his best when he bats higher up the order between No 3 and No 5. He possesses a unique ability to anchor the innings all the way till the end. His innings of 79 in the first ODI of the ongoing series against Australia is a real testament of that. Although he walked out to bat at four-down, he rescued India to a total of 281/7 along with Hardik Pandya from precarious position of 87/5 as he got time to settle down. Moreover, his unbeaten innings of 49 in the third ODI of the Sri Lanka series had also guided India to victory as he stitched a 100-run stand with Bhuvneshwar Kumar for the ninth wicket. Both examples are proof of Dhoni’s anchoring abilities.
Moreover, statistics are also in favor of him batting higher up the order. He has batted the major portion of his career at No 6 where he has played 118 innings, scoring 3,823 runs at an average of 46.62. His average of 48.82 is pretty much the same at No 7, where he has played 31 innings scoring 877 runs in total. However, his batting average constantly improves as we track his career higher up the order. He averages a staggering 53.86 and 58.23 at No 4 and 5 respectively, and a staggering 82.75 at No 3. The impact he makes higher up the order is evident from these numbers.
There's little doubt over the fact that the number three slot belongs to skipper Virat Kohli. However, it is also evident that 4 and 5 are there for the taking. Pandey and Jadhav have been quite inconsistent in the middle-order. While Pandey has shown his mettle at No 6, he can be persisted with at that position as he is not someone who can bat as low as five-down, a position for which Jadhav should seriously be considered due to his finishing abilities.
Pandya is another option for No 7 allowing Dhoni to bat at 4. His ability to finish the innings and hit big from the word 'go' is unmatched. However, the 23-year old all-rounder has registered some useful knocks for himself at that spot, and the Indian team management isn't likely to tamper with that looking at the future. The best move, therefore, would be to allow Dhoni to bat at No 5 with Pandey and Jadhav to follow. That way, Dhoni’s superb match-reading abilities will not be wasted.
India needs a player like him batting in the middle-order looking at the 2019 World Cup. His experience will help the trio of Pandya, Pandey and Jadhav out in the middle and they will be able to learn a lot from him. The way he controls the pace of the game and takes it deep before going berserk is not every player’s cup of tea. At No 7, he is neither able to control the pace of the game due to the lack of time, nor he is able to hit the big ones straight away as that ability as taken a downward curve in recent years. But, his superb game awareness and ability to read the match situation is still there and that makes him unique. And that will be put to the best use at No 5 considering the other players’ comfort at the other positions.
But, his superb game awareness and ability to read the match situation is what makes him unique. And that will be put to the best use at No 5 considering the other players’ comfort at the other positions.
With the World Cup just a year and a half away, India need to think and reassess Dhoni’s batting position once again. With so much of experimentation being done, India should not shy away from trying him out at No 5 as it will be in the best interests of the team. Once tried, Dhoni won’t take more than a couple of matches to remind them what he is capable of doing higher up the order. And Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri need to think and make the move sooner rather than later.