Death, taxes, and India's next number-four batter debate is never-ending. The talk never seems to settle down for the past three ODI World Cups - 2015 to the upcoming. Injuries, last moment change of plans, and loss of form has been the main reason.
As stated by Rohit Sharma at an event in Mumbai, "No.4 has been an issue for us (India) for a long time". He added, "So many guys came in and went out. But injuries kept them away, or they were unavailable, or someone lost form."
Three coach-captain combos have tried to fix this issue but are yet to find the rightful heir for that position. In the follow-up of the 2015 edition, India tried to groom Virat Kohli as the number four batter. However, Ajinkya Rahane batted six innings in this position throughout the World Cup, and Kohli none.
The 2019 mix-up is well known. When Ambati Rayudu was designated as the batter for that position for the tournament, Vijay Shankar came as an out-of-the-box option, more for his ‘3-D skills’ than his number four credentials.
The two preceding editions saw some tactical blunders. But for the 2023 edition, the story is different.
Ahead of the WC year (start of 2023), Shreyas Iyer was zeroed in as the best-suited batter for that position. However, plagued by injuries, Iyer was out of commission for six months. His last international game was against Australia in the fourth Test of the 2023 Border-Gavaskar trophy. The wait for a limited-over game is even longer, as his last match was early this year in January, against Sri Lanka.
Post the 2019 WC, India have tried 11 batters at number four. Here is the kicker. Iyer, the highest-run-scorer, was decommissioned for nearly six months. Rishabh Pant, the second-best, is out for an indefinite period. KL Rahul, at third, is still unfit. It is almost as if the letter "L" in luck has been replaced by an "F" for India.
Iyer has batted 38 innings in ODIs. Out of those, 20 have come at number four. The Mumbaikar has scored 805 runs at an average of 47.35 while batting at this position. Among Indian batters who have played 15+ innings at number four, only MS Dhoni (57.6 in 29 innings), Virat Kohli (55.2 in 39 innings), and Ajay Jadeja (53.05 in 29 innings) average higher than Iyer.
In the same Mumbai event, Rohit praised Iyer by quoting, "For a long period, Shreyas [Iyer] has actually batted at No. 4, and he has done well - his numbers are really good."
Despite making his ODI debut in 2017, all his innings at number four came after the 2019 WC. While he scored 805 runs in 20 innings, the rest of the ten batters have managed 843 runs in 33 innings. The Mumbaikar alone averaged 47.35 compared to 27.2 by others.
Pouncing on the spinners
The major highlight of Iyer's batting is his game against the spinners, an area that has been haunting India for some time now.
As a number four, Shreyas averages 71.5 while maintaining a strike rate of 101.4 against spinners post the 2019 WC. Among number fours who have scored 200+ runs against spin, he is one among the two to average 50+ and score above 100+
Because of his game against spin, Iyer's fitness becomes even more essential. There is hardly any Indian middle-order batter with scrumptious numbers as Iyer from the Asia Cup squad, which is also the potential WC 2023 squad. If Iyer sufferers a niggle, then India are in deep waters because their middle-order batters have struggled against spin in ODIs since 2022.
Suryakumar Yadav, Iyer's first-choice replacement, has a mediocre record against spinners in ODIs since 2022. Let alone against spin, SKY averages just 6 in five ODI innings when he bats at number four.
Even if Virat is handed over the responsibility, he has below-par numbers against spin. The same goes for Ishan Kishan as a middle-order batter. All three batters have an average of less than 40 in ODIs since 2022.
As for Kishan, he has blown hot and cold against spin in his career. Across three bilateral competitions, Kishan has faced the spinners in three or more innings. In one (against NZ), he remained unbeaten. Against South Africa, all his dismissals came against spinners, averaging 17.7. In the last tour to West Indies, he was dismissed twice in three innings while averaging 27.
The one person who is good against spinners and suitable for this position is sitting in the reserves. Sanju Samson averages 86 against spin with a strike rate of 103.6 since 2022.
Indian batters record against slow left-arm-orthodox bowlers is the deepest of all concerns, especially among the non-openers (3-6). In ODIs since 2022, Kohli averages 14.6 (seven dismissals), the second-lowest, Surya averages 18.8 (five), the third-worst, and Kishan has an average of 24 (three).
In this period, among top order batters (1-7) from the top ten ranked teams with 50+ balls against the bowling type, three out of the five worst batters are from India.
In the second ODI against West Indies in the recent tour, Indian batters' weakness against spin was exposed. Gudkesh Motie bagged three wickets in that game to dent India.
On the other hand, Shreyas has been dismissed only twice while averaging 96 against this bowling type. The best batter is KL Rahul, with 85 runs at a strike rate of 110.4, and without a dismissal, but he is yet to recover completely.
Pardon the pun! But that is a lot of responsibility on the ‘back’ of one player playing competitive cricket after six months of a back injury.
He isn't just India's best, but one of the world's best number four after the 2019 WC.
Iyer's average of 47.35 at number four is the third-best among full-member nation batters who have played 15+ innings at this position. Shai Hope, in 12 innings, averages 66.2, and Harry Tector has an average of 50.4. These numbers are enough to underline the significance of Iyer.
If Iyer is fit, India will breathe light. If not, they are in a huge mess, as many batters will be batting out of their position. Well, it's hard to believe that India struggles to solve the number four conundrum every World Cup year or at the brink of the tournament.
To summarize their woes in three words, "Prathishta, Parampara, Anushasan." If you know, you know.