It was bad enough losing Rishabh Pant first, and then Jasprit Bumrah. But it seems team India just can’t catch a break as they’ve now lost the services of Shreyas Iyer too, speculatively for an indefinite period of time.
As things stand, we’re in the dark about the extent of Iyer’s injury and when exactly he’ll return, but we know this: he will be taking no part in the forthcoming three-match ODI series against Australia.
The Indian management’s immediate headache, then, is figuring out a way to replace Iyer in the starting XI.
Iyer’s injury is a body blow, and replacing him in the XI will be no easy task considering he’s been among the team’s best batters in ODIs of late — 848 runs @ 48.47 since 2021 — but the good thing from an Indian perspective is that there’s no paucity of options.
We explore the different ways in which the side can tackle Iyer’s absence firstly for the Australia ODIs, and then potentially in the long term.
Play Ishan Kishan at #4
This seems the likeliest of all options as mind you, Kishan was the batter who took the spot of Iyer in the New Zealand ODIs, which the latter missed due to the very same back injury. Kishan is not a ‘like-for-like’ replacement by any means considering he’s not an accumulator, but picking him will add some much-needed left-handedness to the middle-order.
And fielding Kishan will add variety in more ways than one; considering the top three is already filled with anchors / hybrid anchors, it might just make sense to fit in an x-factor player at No.4.
The question is if the management think Kishan is a potential long-term fit for the role. The last time he was tried at #4, versus the Kiwis, he endured a forgettable series, averaging 15.00 and striking at 63.82.
Considering strike rotation is not a strong suit for Kishan — he has the third-worst dot ball % among all Indian top six batters since 2022 — there’s an argument to be made that India would be better off looking elsewhere.
Play Suryakumar Yadav at #4Another option India have at their disposal is to draft-in Suryakumar Yadav as a direct replacement. Again, Suryakumar has a very different profile to Iyer but he could work for the same reasons mentioned above — his intent could be a game-changer, difference maker and a much-needed breath of fresh air. And unlike Kishan, SKY is not only exceptional at keeping the scorecard ticking by minimizing the dots, he’s also an outstanding player of spin.
The argument against batting SKY at #4 is his own ODI record; how he’s fared in 50-over cricket till now. His average of 28.86 is in itself not reassuring, but far too often he’s tended to throw his wicket away in reckless fashion.
While it is certainly a tasty prospect to have an x-factor batter at No.4, teams would ideally want stability in the position. The last thing you want as a side in 50-over cricket is having your lower-middle / lower order batting between the 15th and the 25th over.
Move Rahul to No.4 and be flexible with the No.5 and No.6 position based on the match situation
A very realistic option that the management have is pushing Rahul and Pandya up the order and deploying the inexperienced batter (SKY or Kishan in this case) at No.6 as the finisher.
In every way, Rahul is the ideal ‘like-for-like’ replacement for Iyer. Not only is he a reliable anchor, he is also a prolific run-getter. He might perhaps not be as destructive against spin bowling as Iyer, but all things considered, he’s as good a replacement as you could ask for.
Rahul taking care of the No.4 slot will leave with India having to choose the No.5 and No.6 batters based on the game situation and that could work too.
If the score is, say, 150/3 in 30, the team could deploy a more-experienced individual like Pandya at No.5. But if the side is flying at 208/3 in 32 overs, it would make sense to send in SKY or Kishan at No.5 — or even Axar, for that matter — and hold Pandya back.
The question that needs to be asked here is: is it worth fixing something that’s not broken, even if it’s temporary? Rahul has an impeccable record at No.5 — averaging 50.61 and SR 102.17 — and has finally found stability in that position. His place is secure and at No.5, he seems to be playing with a considerable amount of freedom.
Will it really be worth messing with this dynamic and risking Rahul losing form and confidence months ahead of the World Cup?
Wildcard option #1 — what about Axar Patel or Washington Sundar at No.4?For India, there’s certainly an avenue to experiment in this Australia ODIs, especially considering the visitors don’t have a full-strength bowling attack at their disposal, so a left-field option could be to fill the Shreyas Iyer-shaped void by utilizing either Axar Patel or Washington Sundar at No.4.
Neither Axar nor Sundar has batted in the Top 4 previously, in any format in fact, but there’s evident batting talent within both players that’s there to be exploited. In a way, you could say that the batting ability of both players is kind of wasted lower down the order.
In many ways, you could say this is the perfect time to try Axar out higher up the order. Forget the fact that he played a couple of blinders last year against West Indies and Bangladesh respectively, his (batting) confidence is at an all time high currently having finished the 2023 Border-Gavaskar Trophy as the standout batter across both teams.
These three ODIs could hence be a real opportunity for India to see what Axar can offer batting at No.4. He has the technique, maturity and the game against spin to potentially succeed, so promoting Axar is something that can be considered.
Wildcard option #2 — push Virat Kohli to No.4?India did try this couple of years ago, incidentally against Australia. Dropping Kohli down to No.4 will enable them to field someone like a Kishan at No.3 but in every way, the cons of this move outweighs the pros.
And with Kohli, you certainly don’t want to try and fix something that’s not broken. Especially in the form he is in right now in ODIs, having smashed 3 tons in his previous 7 knocks.