Team India’s number four conundrum

Rohit Sharma seemed a trifle irritated hours after the selection meeting on Monday at the press conference when asked why India doesn`t have a settled No. 4. The number four conundrum has haunted the Indian camp for a while now. There appears to be more than one reason why the Men in Blue have struggled to fix their No. 4 batting spot heading into the Asia Cup and subsequently, the ODI World Cup.

Perhaps, it is the trickiest spot to bat in the 50-over game, more so, if your top-order is productive. It sure is one riddle that is yet to be solved. The top-order (openers and No. 3) enjoy the liberty of hitting easy boundaries with only two fielders allowed outside the 30-yard circle in the first ten overs. The batsmen here boost their confidence and puncture the spirit of the bowlers. 

Batsmen who walk out at five and six can always hide under the tag of bits-and-pieces cricketers or even play victims of circumstances. But No. 4 is neither a productive spot like the top three in terms of runs assembled and boundaries struck, nor is it deemed valuable as the fancy finishers usually get the special applause.

Sharma made every attempt to calm our nerves, insisting he wants his middle-order batters to show ‘flexibility’ as no one in the national team owns any particular batting position. That the contentious number four has been a game of musical chairs for decades, so much so that nobody has had a fair chance to make the position his own, did not seem like an unusual opinion, considering we play Australia in the World Cup 48 days later.

“We have got guys who can bat at No.4. It`s not about No.4. It`s about the top three and there onwards, 4, 5, 6, 7 and there onwards and who can win us the game. There have been challenges and guys have been put under pressure and that`s a good thing. Unfortunately, we had injuries along the line and we had to try out different players and keep in mind workload management and see what combination suits us,” Rohit explained.

He further added: “We have 9 ODIs and 2 practice games and we have a lot of games where these guys will get a chance to make the position their own.”

Also Read: Team India`s `Big Three` and the inevitability of succession

When a scribe tried to grill him on his flexibility logic asking if random batting position changes create instability, his answer was akin to a pull shot that he plays against fast bowlers.

“When I said flexibility is necessary I never said Hardik (Pandya) will open the innings. Not that. It`s not top three but ones batting at No 4 or 5 who need to be flexible to bat up or down. No. 5 is Rahul and No. 6 is Hardik, but if there`s some change that flexibility is required as we also as youngsters did it. There is a method. We don`t do that kind of madness. This is not a school rule that numbers 1 to 8 are fixed. It`s not about creating mayhem,” the sarcasm wasn`t lost on anyone.

Still, number four remains the most dynamic spot for batsmen given the types of challenges it involves. A number four is more likely to come out to bat in varied situations with run rate and number of overs remaining constantly changing when compared to other slots. The batters are required to possess a flexible mindset and dynamic skill sets to excel in these situations.

At 20-2, survival could be his priority and, hence, defence is the foremost requirement. At 110-2, he searches for the balance between attack and defence. And at 180-2, he is expected to play big shots right away. And in these examples, we are not including current run rate, overs remaining or the required run rate. 

Honestly, such virtuous batters are almost impossible to spot. More so at the World Cup where the opposition attack is different in each game.This is precisely the reason why very few ODI star batsmen have come in at No. 4 for a large part of their careers.

Nine of India’s ODI stalwarts at number four throw up some interesting figures when it came to output per innings: Sourav Ganguly: output of 23.59 runs per innings (number of innings in brackets: 20), Sachin Tendulkar 33.75 (61), Virender Sehwag 25.37 (8), Mohd Azharuddin 33.61 (137), MS Dhoni 45.27 (30), Yuvraj Singh 31.62 (108), Rahul Dravid 32.36 (102), Rohit Sharma 27.5 (26) and Virat Kohli 46.07 (38). 

By now, it seems clear that potentially great players tend to impress upon the team management the need to change their batting slot from No. 4 to elsewhere early in their careers. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Take the examples of AB De Villiers, Mahela Jayawardene, Inzamam-ul Haq, and Ross Taylor. They all featured at number 4 more than any other position. Interestingly, barring Inzamam, none has been a World Cup winner in the list. Of course, that he didn’t bat at number four when he won the Cup in 1992 makes it further interesting.

If a team’s top ODI batter comes in at number 4 (like Mahela Jayawardene and Javed Miandad), it also means their top-order is ruthlessly inconsistent. But weak and inconsistent contribution at the top of the order does not apply much to the Indian batting lineup.

An unsettled number four means that the team doesn`t have a strong backbone. In the recent T20I series against the West Indies, Indian openers uncharacteristically failed to lay the foundation in some of the matches, thus exposing the middle order, although a T20I series is of little significance in an ODI World Cup year. But, any pragmatic side will take such situations as live examples, and the Indian camp sure knows about it.

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