1 problem, 10 failed solutions: The curious case of India's No. 4
30 wins in 47 matches at a win-loss ratio of 1.238, the Indian Cricket team have been on a rampage ever since their 2015 World Cup semi-final loss against Australia at the SCG. They have lost only three out of 10 bilateral series and reached the finals of the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy.
One of the main reasons behind their dominance is the emergence of a good bowling unit. Ever since Jasprit Bumrah's ODI debut, India have won all the bilateral ODI series they have been a part of. Without a doubt, Bumrah's addition to the side has made a massive difference. In Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Bumrah has found an equally destructive bowling partner who can keep any team at bay.
In addition to the pace bowling duo, India have two gems in Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, who are delivering for the team. Before the introduction of the wrist spinners, only Axar Patel was doing the job for the Men in Blue as both R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja were quite expensive since the 2015 World Cup. Now, they are unable to even find a place in the Indian ODI side having been given a 'rest' for the third consecutive ODI series (upcoming ODI series against New Zealand).
The presence of a good bowling unit has added a new dimension to the Indian side who, over the last few years, had a mediocre bowling attack. Putting the dark days behind us, it's time for us to celebrate the current Indian bowling attack in ODIs.
While the bowling attack has improved by leaps and bounds, the batting department looks solid with the likes of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma spearheading it.
Since the end of the 2015 World Cup, the Indian batsmen have amassed 12,209 runs at an average of 44.5 runs per wicket, with a run rate of 5.74. When compared to all the other teams, the Men in Blue lie fourth behind England, who top the table with 14,206 runs, Sri Lanka who lie in second with 12,442 and Australia who are third with 12,284.
But, India have played fewer matches than the other three teams which is evident from their better runs per wicket numbers when compared to England, Sri Lanka and Australia. When it comes to the runs scored per wicket, India top the list with an average of 44.55 followed by England (41.9) and South Africa (40.8), the only three teams to average over 40 runs per wicket in the given period.
India's top-order blitz
India's tally of 12209 runs at an average of just below 45 runs per wicket is not bad. Without a doubt, in Rohit Sharma, India have the best opening batsman in ODIs at the moment and in Virat Kohli, the Men in Blue have the best ODI batsman going around.
The heroics of these two, backed by contributions from other players, have made sure that the current Indian team relies heavily on the top-order. This is clearly evident from the fact that nearly 57% of the runs scored by the Indian batsmen came from the bats of the top-3.
Since the World Cup, India have used as many as 10 batsmen in the top-3, mainly due to the tours to Zimbabwe in 2015 and 2016, and out of those 10, only four batsmen have played over 20 innings. Together, they have scored 6950 runs in 47 matches at an average of 57.43 runs per wicket, the only team to average over 50 in the period.
The 2015 tour of Zimbabwe saw Murali Vijay and Robin Uthappa opening the batting for India along with skipper for that tour, Ajinkya Rahane, while the 2016 tour had KL Rahul, who played just 7 innings in the top-3 in the given period, opening with Karun Nair and Faiz Fazal. Ambati Rayudu batted at number 3 in the matches in Zimbabwe and in the second ODI against Sri Lanka earlier this year, Rahul batted at 3.
Only Kohli, Rohit, Shikhar Dhawan and Rahane have played over 20 innings in the three slots and all these players average over 40 in the given period.
Kohli has amassed 2203 runs at an average of 76 in 38 innings while Rohit averages 61 in 33 innings courtesy his 1813 runs. The other two opening batsmen, Dhawan and Rahane, have managed 1272 (29 innings at 45.42) and 952 runs (22 innings at 43.27) respectively.
The other members of the side have managed a combined total of 710 runs in 18 innings at an average of just over 59.
Middle order woes continue
If you exclude the contributions made by the top-3 batsmen, the rest of the team have scored just 4798 runs (excluding extras) in 47 matches at an average of approximately 31.35, very poor considering the fact that the batsmen coming in at number 4, 5 and 6 play a crucial role for a team in ODIs.
After playing a round of musical chairs, MS Dhoni found himself at number 5 where he has been quite successful. He was tried at 4, 5 and 6 before finally sealing a spot in the batting order. In spite of the fact that his batting has regressed, the former Indian skipper has a lot to offer going into the World Cup.
Hardik Pandya has established himself as a permanent number 7 in the XI and the team management is backing Kedar Jadhav to deliver the goods at number 6. Though these three have not been as consistent as the top-order, their contributions have come in handy for the Men in Blue. So, the area of concern for Kohli's men is the number 4 position.
The batsmen at 5, 6 and 7 have contributed 2905 runs at an average of 38.2 and a strike-rate of 100.1, with both the average and strike-rate being the second best for any team in the given period.
Rahane was asked to bat at number 4 in the 2015 World Cup and soon after, was overlooked for his inability to rotate the strike in the middle overs. Since being relieved of the number 4 duties following the ODI series against Australia in 2016, India have tried numerous options at number 4 and none of the batsmen have been able to cement a place in the side.
Since the 2015 World Cup, India's number 4 batsmen have contributed a total of 1408 runs in 43 innings at an average of 37 with just 10 fifty-plus scores. Only Bangladesh, West Indies, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ireland are below India when it comes to the runs scored by number 4 batsmen in ODIs in that period. India's 10 fifty-plus scores since the 2015 World Cup are the ninth best by any team in the world.
Going in to a bit more detail, the numbers of each of the top-7 batsmen barring the number 4 are miles ahead of the contributions made by the number 4. The role of the number 4 batsman is to anchor the innings in the middle overs, keep the scorecard ticking and go berserk in the last few overs. But, a majority of these repsonsiblities are shared among the top-order and the batsmen batting at number 5, 6 and 7.
The 31.35 average by Indian batsmen at number 4 is the lowest among any position in the top-7, something that suggests that India's number 4 batting slot in ODIs is not yet settled. It has been their weak link since the 2015 World Cup. With the emergence of technology in sport, oppositions have figured them out, exploiting this weakness whenever they take the field.
The mantra is simple, get the wickets of the top three, and you have a chance to restrict India. This, in turn, builds a lot of pressure on the top-order to perform in every single outing.
The curious case of India's number 4 batsmen
As mentioned above, since Rahane was relieved of his number 4 duties after the ODI series against Australia in 2016, India have tried numerous options at that slot and none of them have been able to cement a place in the side.
Rahane and Dhoni did a fantastic job at number 4 as they scored 280 runs (5 innings at an average of 56) and 313 runs (8 innings at an average of 39.12) respectively. Out of the 10 fifty-plus scores by Indian batsmen at the position, Rahane and Dhoni scored five between them. However, with the two finding their own spots in the XI, the team management has been auditioning different players for the number 4 slot.
To be precise, India have tried 10 different batsmen at number 4 since the 2015 World Cup. This list includes the likes of Manoj Tiwary, Dinesh Karthik, Kedar Jadhav, KL Rahul and even Virat Kohli.
Manoj Tiwary batted at number 4 on three occasions in Zimbabwe while the likes of Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik and Kohli batted twice at the position. Karthik, who was in the Indian squad for the 2017 Champions Trophy and the subsequent West Indies series, scored an unbeaten 52 in the last match he played but was dropped for the series against Sri Lanka and Australia before being given a lifeline for the New Zealand series.
Hardik Pandya was promoted to number 4 on four occasions and the all-rounder grabbed the opportunity, scoring 142 runs at an average of 35.50, including a match-winning 78.
Among these 10 names, Yuvraj Singh played the most number of innings at that position, 9, and in those outings, the southpaw managed 358 runs at an average of 44.75 and strike-rate of 98. He is one of two players to have scored a century batting at number 4 for India since the 2015 World Cup. If you remove the 150 he scored against England, his average is a mere 29.
The other Indian batsman to have scored a century at number 4 since the World Cup, Manish Pandey, is struggling to cement his place in the side as he has managed just 189 runs in seven innings at an average of 36.6 and a strike-rate of 93. If we remove his century against Australia in 2016, his average at number 4 is less than 20.
Ahead of the Sri Lanka series in August, India's chief selector announced that KL Rahul would bat at number 4 as the team management wanted to give him a decent number of chances at the position. Adding to this, Indian skipper Kohli, on the eve of the India-Australia series, said, "KL Rahul is an outstanding talent. He has proved himself in all formats. And he is someone who needs to be backed because we believe that he has the ability. Once he identifies his role, he will start winning us games. We are very sure of that."
What happened next? Rahul played just four matches in Sri Lanka and in those four games, batted at no. 4 in just one match, scoring 17 runs. Eventually, he was dropped from the playing XI for the ODIs against Australia and excluded from the squad for the subsequent India-New Zealand ODI series. The selectors' explanation for his exclusion indicated that he was in the team as a reserve opener, to be used only when Dhawan was absent.
Where from here?
One of the main reasons for the failure of the batsmen at number 4 is the fact that they were not given a proper role in the side. Sometimes, they walked out to bat at the fall of the second wicket and sometimes, they didn't.
The team management should define the role of the players who are groomed to bat at that position and give them a long rope instead of shuffling the middle order every second game.
With just 18 months left until the World Cup, Virat Kohli and co. should find a solution for the misfiring number 4 slot. The upcoming India-New Zealand series will be very crucial for Manish Pandey as a failure in the series could see him excluded from the Indian side for a while.
If he fails, Karthik would be a good choice to succeed Manish as he has been prolific in the Indian domestic circuit for a while. One more name that could be a solution for the number 4 spot is Shreyas Iyer. The Mumbaikar has been a consistent run scorer in the Indian domestic circuit over the last three years and has everything that is needed to succeed in international cricket.
In spite of their superior records at number 4 in the past, the likes of Dhoni and Rahane should not be asked to bat at that spot again as their roles are clear at the moment and it will be better if they continue performing those.
Also, bringing back the likes of Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh to the Indian side based on their reputation should not be done even if the situation gets out of hand as it would send a bad message to the fringe players. Both the players are hardly performing these days and they don't deserve a call-up to the Indian side.
The Indian team is, without a doubt, one of the early favourites ahead of the 2019 World Cup, thanks to their bowling attack and top-three. A collective failure from the top-three, like what happened in the ICC Champions Trophy final, could be disastrous in the absence of a solid number 4.
The onus is on the selectors, team management, skipper and the candidates for the number 4 slot to do their best to make sure that India's weak link does not get exposed.