The gods of cricket have a sense of irony.
On the morning of June 10, the wires flashed the news that Yuvraj Singh, Indian cricket’s perennial “nearly there” man, was retiring from all forms of the game. And a day later, that was superseded by word that India’s opener Shikhar Dhawan, fresh off a century against five-time champions Australia, had a hairline fracture on his thumb, acquired courtesy a Pat Cummins lifter, and will be out of action for an as-yet indeterminate period of time.
The irony lay in this – it was as a destructive, if always elegant, hitter at number four or five that Yuvraj Singh had left a lasting impression on Indian cricket. And it was in the number four slot – a contentious selection even before the team had left for England – that Dhawan’s absence has created a vacuum.
KL Rahul will inevitably move up into the opening slot alongside Rohit Sharma – when the team was picked, chairman of selectors MSK Prasad had called him out as India’s “back up opener”. Continuing the irony, Rahul had inadvertently solved the existing number four puzzle when, in the warm-up game between India and Bangladesh on May 28 at Cardiff, he came in at that position with the score on 50/2 and, despite seeing captain Virat Kohli go early, cruised to 108 off 99 – a slick knock studded with 12 fours and four sixes.
Commentators and captain were alike eloquent about the right hander’s batting in that game and sure enough, he duly slotted into the position for the tournament proper – only, he looked as out of place as a band aid on a beauty contestant. His 26 off 42 in India’s first game against South Africa underscored the issue: Rahul is by skill and temperament an opener; you don’t shoehorn such players into a middle order berth because batting in the middle requires different skill sets, aptitude, temperament. FWIW, Rahul has been tried only thrice at number four – for a yield of 26 runs off 44 balls at an average of 13 and a strike rate of 59.
It was at best a stop-gap solution, and now the injury to Dhawan has opened up the gap again and, in the process, raised the question: How did India, with four years to prepare for this event, end up not knowing who their best option was for one of the most pivotal positions in the batting order?
Speaking at our launch event on April 4 Mahela Jayawardene, arguably among the shrewdest cricketing brains of our time, made the point that good teams will have locked in their key personnel at least a year before a global event.
He was speaking of Sri Lanka, but the point holds true for India and leads one to ask: What went wrong with the planning?
India, the fabled home of mathematicians, is also the home of fuzzy cricketing arithmetic. In our calculus, half of eleven equals three, as evidenced by the fact that the top three batsmen score over half of all the team’s runs.
In England, this can prove as fatal as Achilles’ infamous heel, particularly when batting first. The sun, early on, will be low voltage; the ball will swing and seam in the early overs and offer bounce whenever quality quicks want to extract it – exactly the kind of bowling most openers of any nation are vulnerable to. And that makes number four a more than usually crucial position.
However, so enamored were we of the batting prowess of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli, supplemented by the slow-burn eruptions of MS Dhoni and the volcanic eruptions of Hardik Pandya, that we seem to have paid little heed to the need to build a strong bridge between the top three and the high-impact finishers.
A couple of data points shed light. First, the performance of the designated number four across all participating teams since January 1, 2015:
And related, the number of batsmen tried out at the number four slot by the participating nations since January 2015:
New Zealand, England, South Africa and Bangladesh are the teams with the most consistent number fours. Not coincidentally, they are among the teams that have tried out the fewest number of batsmen in that slot.
In contrast, the number four slot is the weak underbelly of top contenders India and Australia – and they are next only to Sri Lanka in terms of turnover. Now dig a little deeper into how inconsistent India’s selection policy has been, by examining the number of consecutive games a particular batsman has played at number four (The chart considers only those batsmen who have played at four more than twice):
Irony wept. Five batsmen have between them batted at four in 44 games since January 1, 2015. Not a single one of these is part of the World Cup squad. Now go deeper still, examining in detail the performance of all Indian batsmen who have played at four at least on one occasion:
Several points jump out at you. If you accept that number four needs to maintain and build on the momentum provided by the top three and, equally, be capable of cauterizing early wounds inflicted by opposition bowlers, then the logical contenders are Ajinkya Rahane, Yuvraj Singh, Ambati Rayudu and Suresh Raina, all of whom have decent averages and strike rates.
Yuvraj heard the message of his non-inclusion loud and clear and decided to call curtains on his career. Raina’s record is skewed by the fact that most of his best knocks at four came in the 2015-’16 period, and he has been visibly short of form since. And Rahane and Rayudu weren’t picked.
Nota Bene: Two other members have batted four on multiple occasions but rule themselves out of contention for various reasons: Virat Kohli (6 times – but he is the designated number three, and in any case averages 9.1 with a strike rate of 61 at four); and MS Dhoni (12 knocks, a decent average of 40.7 undermined by a painful strike rate of 77).
So who does that leave? Vijay Shankar who, chairman of selectors MSK Prasad indicated while announcing the squad is a “three dimensional player”, a comment that led to Rayudu’s famously viral snark about ordering 3D glasses. Check Shankar’s record:
Since his ODI debut against Australia at Melbourne in January this year, Shankar has batted five times – and not one of those was at number four (He did not bat in his first three games, and again in his fifth game). As a batsman, he has done nothing – yet – to earn a place in the XI, let alone come in at a pivotal position; as a bowler, his captain does not trust him to consistently perform sixth bowler duties. PS: He is an outstanding fielder, one of the fleetest in the side – so that is one dimension out of three.
The selectors’ long punt is Dinesh Karthik, who in their estimation could step into the four slot in the event Shankar doesn’t find form. The most senior member of this side is also its most regular cliché-bait: Whenever he walks out to bat, commentators dig deep into their encyclopedia of cricket clichés. “He is a brilliant player…” “unorthodox”… “highly experienced in pressure situations…” “hits in unusual areas…”
Sure. Nine outings at number four since January 1, 2015. An average of 52.8 (he was only out five times) and a strike rate of 71. Not the pits, exactly – Karthik in fact has the best average of all players who have been tried out at four, but ranks ninth out of 13 Indian number fours in terms of strike rate. That makes him, at best, a Hail Mary punt.
It is not as if the imminence of the World Cup became apparent last week. Yet, in the four years since the previous edition, the selectors (and the team management of captain and coach, who should shoulder a large chunk of any blame going around) have tinkered and tailored, trying out as many as 13 players for the slot.
And, finally, with jaw-dropping logic, they picked the one guy – Vijay Shankar – who they had never tried at all.
So here we are, with the throat-clearing games behind us, ready for the serious business of qualifying for the knock-outs – and wondering who mans the middle of the middle order.
At that, Dhawan may have done the selectors an inadvertent favor – they now have the loophole to bring Rishabh Pant into the squad, ostensibly as cover for Dhawan. Now look at this team batting chart: Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Virat Kohli, Rishabh Pant, MS Dhoni, Hardik Pandya.
Behind the top three, you now have two batsmen who can explode at any point in the game, against any opposition. And you have, in Dhoni, someone who in case of early disasters can come in and bat deep, piloting the recovery and allowing the impact batsmen to bat around him.
Why on earth wasn’t this the default setting in the first place?