India’s batting line-up in limited-over games, though formidable, has often been criticised for being too top-heavy. The last time a batsman batting number four or below scored a hundred for India before Ambati Rayudu’s effort in the fourth ODI against Windies was in January 2017. In the same period, India’s top-three have scored a staggering 29 centuries.
It’s true that top-order batsmen get more chances to make big scores and given the quality of India’s top order, the middle order rarely gets a chance to make a big score. However, a 29 to 1 skew in favour of the top order indicates serious issues.
The problem of finding a consistent number four is something skipper Virat Kohli inherited from MS Dhoni’s captaincy days. Dhoni even toyed with the idea of batting Rahane at three and Kohli at four for a while to lend some stability to the middle order. But pushing the world’s best ODI batsman down the order was never going to be a feasible solution. It never worked during the Tendulkar era, and it won’t work in the Kohli era.
The other big hope was to finally make Dhoni a full-time number four batsman. The idea had a lot going for it. It would allow Dhoni to control the middle overs and if set, go berserk in the death overs. However, Dhoni’s batting form continued to dip, and the team had to look for other options. They tried to revive Yuvraj Singh’s career, but even if he maintained form, his fitness was an issue. Manish Pandey’s fitness was supreme, but he never seemed to get a consistent run and eventually faced a severe dip in form. Kedar Jadhav was streetsmart but his fitness remains an issue. KL Rahul batted like dream in the top 3 but somehow couldn't control the middle overs.
The importance of a quality batsman at number four in an ODI can’t be emphasised enough. Number four is the bridge between the top order and the lower order. He must have the skills and adaptability to walk-in in the fourth over or the 44th over of the game and play according to the situation and team’s need.
At the start of this year, as selectors went through the list of contenders, one name that they were least likely to consider was Ambati Rayudu. Rayudu had last played for India June 2016 on a tour to Zimbabwe where India sent a second-string side, and he was there just to make up the numbers.
But then a stellar IPL 2018 changed everyone’s perception of Rayudu. He was finally delivering on the promise of the teenage prodigy who used to pack a punch in his strokeplay and was hailed as the next big thing in Indian cricket. The remarkable thing about Rayudu’s IPL was his adaptability as a batsman. He made a formidable pair with Shane Watson opening the batting for CSK, but he was happy to do a job at number 4 when the team management asked him to.
This ability to do what the team asked separated him from the lot that demands a specific batting number preference and throws a tantrum when denied. With solid contributions at Visakhapatnam and Mumbai against the Windies, Rayudu has ticked all the required boxes for the number four slot. He has the versatility, game sense, and experience for this all-important slot.
After having gone through so many ups and downs in his long cricketing career, he values the chance to represent the country. Once notorious for his impulsive anger, Rayudu of today cuts an almost Zen-like figure. While many were furious about how he was first picked for the ODI side right after the IPL but was dropped for failing the yo-yo test, Rayudu’s nonchalantly dismissed the outrage and said he believed in the tests and was only disappointed in himself for missing it.
Perhaps it's this calming influence that has everyone in the Indian team raving over Rayudu whenever they talk about him. Dhoni constantly talked him up during the IPL. Kohli paid tribute to his intelligence and showed complete confidence in his abilities even before this series started which, given the incessant chopping and changing in the team of late, is a rare compliment.
Rohit Sharma also mentioned in his interview that they have known Rayudu for a long time and are aware that he can produce the kind of inning where he can play the supporting role and build a platform, to begin with, and play the big shots later on. This familiarity with key players in the team also helps him with the dressing-room dynamics.
With only a handful of game to go before the 2019 World Cup, it's high time for Team India to start putting a seal on various positions and roles in the team. By the end of this series, Rayudu should be told that he may start packing for a long trip in England in mid-2019.