With the possible exception of Viv Richards, there is no greater number three in the nearly five-decade history of men’s ODI cricket than Virat Kohli.
Only two men have more runs at this position than Kohli’s 9,509: Ricky Ponting, with 12,662 (having had 150 more innings than Kohli), and Kumar Sangakkara, with 9,747 (58 more innings than Kohli). Kohli averages 63.39 in his 180 knocks from one-down in 50-over cricket; no other man with 1,000 or more runs at number three has averaged 60. Of Kohli’s 43 ODI hundreds, 36 have come from this slot. Next-best, on this count, is Ponting with 29 (and third-placed Sangakkara is halfway behind Kohli with 18).
Only the legendary Richards, with a stunning average of 57.57 and a generation-defying strike rate of 86.88, could make a compelling enough case to displace Kohli as the number three pick of choice in a fantasy all-time ODI XI — and the ‘King’ himself would probably point to the fact that he played less than one-third the number of games Kohli has at number three.
The advent of T20 cricket has brought several new philosophies into the realm of the ODI game over the past decade-and-a-half, but one rule remains universal across all grades of limited-overs cricket: Your best batters bat at the top of the order.
Sure, the argument to this would be the suggestion that Kohli at number four would probably still be among the best batsmen going around in ODIs, and a cursory glance at the corresponding figures does offer a promising argument – Kohli averages 56.48 at number four, having hit seven centuries and crossed 50 on 15 occasions in 38 innings. A drop down the order would also be a way of addressing the experience vacuum left in the Indian middle-order with the exit (surely?) of MS Dhoni.
But now we dig a little deeper. Of those 38 innings Kohli has played at number four in ODIs, only six have come from 2015 onwards – and only one since the end of 2015. In those six innings, his scores read 9(16), 4(8), 3*(8), 11(18), 12(18), 7(6).
There could be a counter-argument here as well: Virat Kohli the batsman, in his present avatar — a brutally-blossoming beast in the purplest of patches over the same time-frame — will probably revel from any position, against any opposition, and in any condition in the 50-over game.
That’s when the mind bends towards something once said by Ian Chappell — arguably among the better thinkers known in this game: “You don’t weaken a strength to strengthen a weakness.”
In cricket, as in life, you don’t tinker with what’s going good for you in the absence of any compelling need or pressing demand to do the same. That ought to be the thinking for the Indian think-tank too, one would imagine. And then, you could break this ongoing situation down to two simplest binaries:
A) Virat Kohli at number three is the best thing to have happened to Indian ODI cricket
B) The next marquee ODI event is more than three years away
The suggestion passed on by the Indian captain on the eve of his team’s first ODI action of 2020 would have been much more worth the consideration if, say, it came on the eve of the World Cup last year, which his team entered without any remedy to a number four-shaped hole that had been gaping at them for at least three years leading up to the event. That would qualify as a compelling need, or a pressing demand.
But now? When you’re three years away from the next ODI World Cup? When, bafflingly enough, you seem to have found a potential solution to that number four crisis in just the small sample of five matches played since the semi-final exit in England? When Shreyas Iyer — 25-year-old Shreyas Iyer — has displayed glimpses of promise (which, funnily enough, he had displayed two years before the 2019 World Cup too… wow what a can of worms that situation was!)?
The stressing upon Iyer’s age above points one in the direction of another oddity about this latest ‘fix’. It’s obviously a way to deal with the Shikhar Dhawan versus KL Rahul conundrum that Indian cricket clearly doesn’t want to deal with at the moment, but at what point in this fix will we start considering the fact that Dhawan will be past 37 come 2023? Or that there has been a visible waning of his powers? (In 2019, Dhawan recorded an average of 36.43 – his lowest in any calendar year since becoming a regular in the Indian ODI setup in 2013)
Let’s assume they look beyond all that, that they trust in Dhawan’s longevity and his always-mentioned ICC-event fixation. That means you look at a top-four that reads Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Virat Kohli. How does the lineup read after that? If you want a specialist ‘keeper (which is what batting coach Vikram Rathour seemed to suggest on Sunday) plus a sixth-bowling option (which, too, has been reflected in a lot of India’s selections before and after the World Cup), you’re looking at Rishabh Pant and Kedar Jadhav to occupy the next two slots. In Jadhav, you stare at another someone who will be beyond 37 come 2023.
So that becomes two 37-year-olds you are willing to consider in the longer-term picture, over a 25-year-old displaying more than just flashes of brilliance.
This is the moment where we allow irony to enter the room — and die a thousand deaths. Because as a continuation to his answer on being “very happy” to change his batting position, Kohli also added the following:
“Your job as the captain is not only to look after the team right now but also to prepare a team that you can leave behind when you eventually pass it on to someone else… the vision has to be always on the larger picture and figure out how you can make these guys more confident.”
Umm… sorry, what again?
It’s so confusing, everything around this, that I’m a little confused myself. So let’s recap, to try and make sense of it: Virat Kohli – arguably the greatest number three in ODIs – says he is ready to bat at number four to accommodate both Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul in the Indian ODI XI. This allows a 34-year-old Dhawan to stay in the XI, while dislodging a 25-year-old Shreyas Iyer from number four – a position of great strife to Indian ODI cricket of late, but one for which Iyer has presented himself as a promising bet in just the last few months. Kohli suggests all of this at a time when more than three years remain for the next major ODI competition. And he says it’s part of looking at a larger picture and preparing a team that can be left behind for his successor.
Sorry, but I’m just not reading this the way you are, Mr Kohli. It doesn’t add up. It doesn’t make sense.
And if by some mystical bend of logic it does, then I go back to the first argument I presented above. And I implore you to think of a similar moving down the order that happened with a few times with the man whose baton of batting brilliance you’ve taken forward in this generation.
Sachin Tendulkar, too, had been convinced about relocating to number four in ODIs a little ways before the 2007 World Cup, in order to cram in other lucrative top-order options. Come to think of it, it’s a scenario that often finds itself unfolding in front of the greatest there are, perhaps as a functioning of the human mind – we love our superheroes, but we tend to assume, even expect, them to do good in any circumstance; we think they can be the ones to make the sacrifice play for someone else to come good. But the 2007 World Cup wasn’t a great time for anyone invested in Indian cricket, was it?
Indian ODI cricket has several issues to fix — but Virat Kohli’s batting position isn’t one.
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