No. 4 spot continues to haunt India

Virat Kohli's record at No.4 in recent times has been nothing to write home about. PTI

The problem of No. 4 hasn’t got off the back of the Indian team. It was an issue of paramount importance during India’s 50-over World Cup campaign in England and Wales. Six months after the showpiece event, the men-in-blue are yet to crack the code of finding the right man for the task.

In the two three-match series that succeeded after the World Cup, India weren’t tested enough by a ninth-ranked West Indies side. The results of 2-0 away and 2-1 at home in India’s favour were a clear indication of a largely one-sided competition. Against big teams though, India cannot afford to falter in their plans.

Once Shikhar Dhawan, returning after an injury-forced break, made a statement in the three-match T20I series against Sri Lanka, it became inevitable for India to accommodate all three openers - Rohit Sharma and K L Rahul being the other two - in the first ODI against Australia here on Tuesday. The hosts chose to open with their regular pair of Rohit and Dhawan while the in-form Rahul walked in at No. 3. This decision came at the cost of Virat Kohli batting one spot lower in the order.

Irrespective of the format, teams would want their best batsman to shoulder the responsibility of the No. 3 slot. Kohli, one of the most intimidating batsmen in the world, is best suited for the slot as the records vouch for it. At number 3, the right-hander has 9477 runs at an outstanding average of 63.18 from 179 matches. Though Kohli has an impressive overall average of 55.12 (1709 runs) from 38 games batting at No.4 with seven hundreds, his record in the last six years has been "poor" by his own standards. The right-hander managed has just one century from 12 matches at an average of 40.12 at No 4. In fact, his last six innings have yielded 16, 7, 12, 11, 4 and 9.

On Tuesday in the first ODI, Dhawan and Rahul steadied the ship after Rohit’s early dismissal. What worried India was that during the duo’s 127-run stand, the team’s run-rate was little over five per over. Even totals that appear huge are hardly safe against top teams in modern day cricket.

A set Kohli, like umpteen times in the past, would have accelerated at the right point and set the tone for a daunting score. Kohli arrived in the middle at a tricky score of 134/2 with just 23 overs to go. Eventually, following a middle-order collapse, India managed a below par 255.

“We have had this discussion many times in the past," Kohli said while reflecting on the loss.  "Because of the way KL (Rahul) has been batting, we have tried to fit him in the line-up. Having said that, I don’t think it’s quite gone our way whenever I have batted at No. 4 so we will probably have to rethink about it,” Kohli told Star Sports after his team’s 10-wicket drubbing.    

The good form of three openers can still be an advantage and not a headache for India if they ask Rahul to keep wickets. While it's a bit harsh on the Karnataka batsman, this seems an ideal solution to help them strike balance in both departments. The 27-year-old has kept wickets in domestic tournaments for Karnataka as well as in the IPL. Recently, head coach Ravi Shastri too said that the classy batsman could be a wicketkeeping option in the T20 World Cup later this year in Australia.

Despite a sustained backing from the management, Pant’s performance has left a lot to be desired. By leaving out the Delhi player, India can accommodate another all-rounder apart from Ravindra Jadeja, someone like Shivam Dube could fit into the role.

An extra all-rounder brings balance to the bowling attack and with Kohli back at No.3 and Rahul at No. 4, India’s batting line-up too appears more organised.

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