India's ODI No. 4 conundrum - Time to change the approach
13 - That's the number of One Day Internationals that separates India from the start of World Cup 2019. Five home games against Windies, three away games against Australia and another five away games against New Zealand sum up the list. The search for India's ideal number four, which began after Indian cricket team dropped Yuvraj Singh post-Champions Trophy 2017, still continues.
The recently concluded Asia Cup provided two strong opportunities to Dinesh Karthik, in the last league match vs Afghanistan and in the final against Bangladesh to cement his spot. To his credit, he made meaningful contributions of 44 and 37 respectively in those games, but he could not see India through to the finish line. In fact, he along with others in the middle order slowed down enough to ensure nervy last over finishes in both games.
One might argue that number four is not supposed to be a finisher, and the job of accelerating towards the end should rest with the likes of Dhoni and co. who follow number fifth to seventh. However, in the current context, India's number five batsman-MS Dhoni is not the quickest off the blocks in terms of strike rate, and India's nos. six and seven (likes of Jadhav, Pandya, Jadeja) do not deliver consistently. This suggests that India needs someone at 4 who can either (a) play long enough to finish the innings or (b) play at a fast tempo to make the asking rate simpler for the likes of Dhoni and co. to follow.
On looking at the players that India have tried post-Yuvraj and trying to see if someone can fulfill that role, we get Ajinkya Rahane who was a great prospect, as he had the ability to bat long and rotate the strike, but he didn't quite scale the heights as a finisher. Manish Pandey probably is one of the better finishers, but he hasn't shown much ability to play long innings. He is more suited for the no. six role. Dinesh Karthik has shown the ability to bat long, but he tends to slow down and lose momentum in his innings if he gets in with a lot of overs to spare. KL Rahul is possibly the best of the lot, as he can play long innings and finish games as well, but he hasn't made the most of his chances in the middle order. India have tried 4 players who fulfilled criteria (a) but haven't got the desired success.
There's one player, who fulfilled criteria b, and India tried him for a short while with good success. It was Hardik Pandya played with an aggressive outlook in the 2017 home series against Australia and put the pressure back on the bowlers in the middle overs. This experiment with Pandya understandably was short lived because India needed to develop Pandya the 5th bowler more than Pandya the batsman.
However, Pandya's relatively successful stint as no. four is a crucial hint that India doesn't really need a proper batsman cum finisher at no. 4. They can do with an aggressive batsman who can attack from the word go or counter-attack after a poor start. With a very experienced and calm Dhoni to follow, fearlessness should be an important trait in India's no. four. Fortunately, one such player called Rishabh Pant already exists in the radar of our selectors. Pant began his domestic career as a reckless and inconsistent player but the youngster remarkably improved his consistency in 2017-18 domestic season. Average-44, Strike rate- 128 from 7 games in Vijay Hazare trophy, Average-45, Strike Rate-195 in 10 games in Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy and Average 52, Strike Rate 173 in 14 games in IPL are a testimony to his improved consistency along with the obvious explosiveness.
This may well be the right time to get started with Rishabh Pant, and provide this change of approach to India's middle order batting. If one is looking for a precedent to this approach, look no further than the successful slam-bang approach of England ODI team. King Kohli needs an Ace to follow him. Look no further beyond Pant.