The recently concluded series of One-Day International (ODI) series against Australia was as much an eye-opener for Indian team as it was for the followers of the game in the country. As is their wont fans in India expected their side to triumph over their rivals easily. This expectation gained ground when India won the first two matches, despite being in difficult positions in both games. However, the visitors turned the tide in their favour from the third match onwards and their stunning batting display while successfully chasing a target on 359 runs in the fourth ODI took the wind away from the Indian sails. After that, the last match, though technically the decider, was only a formality; there was no way India could have come back and upstaged the Aussies who were on a roll.
Skipper Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri put on a brave front after the series loss saying that there was no cause to worry and that preparations for the ICC World Cup, scheduled to start by end of May 2019, were on course. But reactions from other experts and former players indicate that while there might not be any reason for undue concern, the fault lines that this series threw up should be tackled urgently by the team management. In that sense the result can be considered to be a good wake-up call for the national side, who would be better prepared when they start their campaign for the most prestigious trophy in contemporary international cricket.
The biggest worry for the selectors and team management would be the fact that the batting is too intensely top heavy for comfort. Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli form the most feared trio at the top of order in limited overs’ cricket today. Rohit has been so successful at the opening slot in the shorter version of the game that fans of the game invariably expect a century from him once he survives the initial overs. Dhawan, on the contrary, is more mercurial, and is prone to play the loose shot frequently. Kohli is a complete batsman capable of demolishing any bowling attack once he gets his eye in. These three are capable of winning a game off their own steam and they have exhibited this ability on many an occasion in the past.
However, while planning for a tournament like the World Cup, one must also factor in unforeseen situations such as loss of form, injury etc. Or there could be a scenario when the team is required to bat first on a wicket with a good grass cover against an attack led by Mitchell Starc of Australia or Trent Boult of New Zealand. These are bowlers capable to making the initial inroads and they can be deadly in conditions that favour seam and swing bowling. Loss of quick wickets in the initial overs in such a match situation can expose the middle order, which is the Achilles heel of the present Indian side.
The importance of No 4 slot in the batting order is on account of the marked variance in the approach that the batsman at this position has to exhibit when confronted with different situations. If the top three get going, the batsman at No 4 would be required to bat only when less than 20 overs remain, which would mean that he should maintain the pace of scoring and step up the accelerator without losing time. However, in an instance where top order collapses, he would be required to walk in during the first 10 overs itself and remain till the end of the innings. In the latter situation he would be required to steady the innings, blunt the bowling, slowly look for scoring opportunities and then finally open up and push the scoring rate. In other words, he should anchor the entire innings.
At the close of the tour to New Zealand, Ambati Rayudu appeared to have cemented his place in the playing eleven at the crucial No 4 spot in the batting order. However, his performance in the three opportunities provided to him during the series in Australia was disappointing, which have made people wonder whether Rayudu possesses the skill sets to navigate the batting ship of the side when it enters troubled waters. On present form, Rayudu does not inspire confidence that he would be able to successfully meet the challenges that batting in this slot are bound to throw up and hence the worry lines on this score.
A new name that has come up for consideration for this slot in batting order is that of Vijay Shankar, who had an impressive outing against Australia. He batted fluently before being dismissed in unfortunate circumstances, when four short of his 50 on a double-paced wicket at Nagpur. He also delivered when it mattered by bowling the last over and taking two wickets off consecutive balls when Aussies required only 11 runs. Thus, his stars are on the ascendant presently. However, it also remains a fact that he has so far played only in nine ODIs and does not have even one half century under his belt till date. Can India afford to take the field during the World Cup campaign with a relative greenhorn at No. 4 position?
Meanwhile, former captain Sourav Ganguly came up with the suggestion that either Cheteshwar Pujara or Rishabh Pant be considered for this slot. Ganguly’s justification for recommending the case of Pujara was the terrific form he displayed in the Test matches in Australia. He also cited the example of Rahul Dravid, who was not the fastest scorer but used to bat in this position during the 2003 World Cup. But what Ganguly failed to mention was that Dravid was an integral part of Indian team for ODIs during the 1999-2003 phase while Pujara has not been in the reckoning for a slot in the side during the last five years. In fact, Pujara has played in only five ODIs during his entire career and his last match for the country in this version of the game was in 2014!
Another option suggested by Ganguly was Rishabh Pant, whose name was recommended by former Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting as well. Pant has been the rising star of Indian cricket ever since he made his international debut in 2018, with centuries in Test matches against England and Australia on their home turfs under his belt. He has been highly rated by all the experts who see him as the natural successor to Mahendra Singh Dhoni, both on account of his big hitting ability as well as the work behind the stumps. Pant did not have a good series against Australia as his glove work was patchy; further, he did not utilise the opportunities he got with the bat to come up with a tall score. In the last ODI at Delhi, he batted at No. 4 slot but could score only 16 runs. There is no doubt that Pant possesses the “x factor” that could see him evolve into a outstanding batman in all formats of the game. But what works against Pant presently is his relative inexperience in this format as he has played only in five ODIs till date.
Akash Chopra, former India opening batsman and a widely respected voice commenting on the game, has observed that a cricketer selected to play in World Cup should have experience of playing in at least 50 ODIs. ICC World Cup is the biggest stage so far as cricket is concerned and any player who represents the country in this championship should possess not only the potential and prowess but also the fortitude and temperament to cope with the pressures at play there. Strength of mind and balanced outlook come only with experience of playing at the highest level for a sufficiently long period. The fact that even Dhoni, renowned for his monk-like serenity found the going difficult during his initial outing at ICC World Cup in 2007, underlines the importance of taking the field with experienced players.
An analysis of the performance of the four contenders discussed above shows that only Rayudu meets the benchmark of 50 ODIs. A tally of three centuries and 14 scores above 50, batting average of 47.05 and scoring rate of 79.04 makes him the frontrunner for being considered for the No. 4 slot. However, his poor form of late makes one wonder whether the selectors were a bit too hasty in dumping Ajinkya Rahane, who possesses the required experience and could also double up as an extra opening batsman. Rahane has played in 90 ODIs, possesses an average of 35.26 and a strike rate of 78.24, but played his last match in February 2018. Since selectors did not give him a call during the series against Australia one should infer that Rahane is not in the reckoning for a place in the squad for World Cup.
One hopes that team management is clear in their mind as to who should bat at No 4 in the batting order for India during the World Cup. The success or otherwise of the batsman padding up to go in this position would go a long way in deciding the fortunes of the national side during the championship set to commence in another eight weeks time.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)