The Indian cricket team began their preparations for the Cricket World Cup, to be held in England, next year, in the best possible manner as they took an unassailable 4-1 lead in the 6-match One Day International series against South Africa on Tuesday, 13 February.
The hosts, coming off an impressive unbeaten streak of 17 ODI wins at home, hardly had any response to the guile of India’s spin twins Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.
With India’s top-order - Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli - being in staggering form, the Proteas were unable to find ways to get under their skins, despite fielding their best bowlers.
However, while one can rejoice at the dominance of the Men in Blue, which augurs well ahead of the World Cup, one should not be forced to shy away from an impertinent problem that has been plaguing the team ever since the last World Cup in 2015.
In the limited overs, Kohli, Dhawan and Rohit have contributed 7,117 runs in 133 innings amongst them, at an average of 61.82, and it would not be a hyperbole to suggest that India have vastly relied on their heroics at the top to help the team either chase a target or pile up a huge number of runs on the board.
Almost never have they disappointed. If Rohit fails, as was the case in the first four games against South Africa, Dhawan rises to the occasion with elan, and vice-versa.
Of course, Kohli’s average of 76.89 in the last three years suggests that the good days have overridden the bad ones and that he has almost always combined with an opener to save the day for the team.
But the issue arises after that. Once the top three are out and back in the pavilion, it is crucial for the number four player to not only anchor the innings but to do so at a good strike. He must keep the scoreboard chugging along and stay till the slog overs, when he can attack and build upon the foundation that has been laid out for him.
Yuvraj Singh, for long, had been carrying on this task with ease, and till he fell off the radar, the number four slot hardly proved a worry for the team.
Since the tournament in Australia and New Zealand in 2015, India have fielded 11 different batsmen at the number four position in 58 matches.
Ajinkya Rahane and Yuvraj have played in the spot the most – 10 times each – and have averaged above 42. But Yuvraj’s numbers are enhanced by his knock of 150 against England, without which he just averages close to 27. His lack of fitness in an Indian team, that has set high standards for just that, has been another reason for him slipping off the pedestal.
Rahane, who has been batting at number four in the ongoing series against South Africa, proves to be a liability in the sub-continental conditions with his inability to rotate the strike and thus, he cannot be seen as a permanent number four player. The primary reason why Kohli pushed him to bat at number four against South Africa could be because of his reputation in overseas conditions and his technique to handle the tough situations when playing abroad, something that the younger players lack. In this series, he has scored 106 runs in 4 innings, including a fluent 79 in Durban.
The other player, MS Dhoni, who was once expected to make the number four slot his, has been unable to keep the consistent performances coming in. He batted at the number four position in nine matches, scoring at an average of 35.55 but he has often been found guilty of playing at a slower strike-rate than what is expected of him. With him taking time to settle down, his innings undoes all the good work that the top order has done.
KL Rahul, a great talent, was chosen as a number four player by chief selector MSK Prasad, but he is considered more of a back-up opener by Kohli.
The likes of Manish Pandey and Dinesh Karthik have been given adequate chances but have been unable to stitch together jaw-dropping performances and Ambati Rayudu, Manoj Tiwary and Kedar Jadhav don’t make the cut to bat at number four.
Numbers Since 2015 World Cup
This problem gains a larger perspective, when one realises that India has fielded the most number of players at the number four spot amongst all the nations that have played a cricket match since the last World Cup.
India’s number four have contributed 1,631 runs, at an average of 35.45 with just two centuries and 10 fifties.
Only Australia, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and West Indies rank lower in the number of runs that have been scored by a number four player. Australia, who has only slid below India in the recent months, has more half-centuries by a number four than India during this period.
Also, on many occasions, India’s middle order has been guilty of messing up the hard work of the top-order and once India loses the first two wickets, the rest of the players are guilty of succumbing as well.
Since the World Cup, India’s top-order has scored the most number of runs in the world– 3,471 runs at an average of 80.72 – which is almost 700 more runs than the runs that have been scored by the second-placed England’s top order.
However, India falters and falls to the seventh position when it comes to the performance of their batsmen from four to seven. All combined, twenty players have played at numbers four to seven since the World Cup for India, and they have been able to contribute just 4,938 runs at a lowly average of 35, with just five centuries among them. Not only does this put unnecessary pressure on Rohit, Dhawan and Kohli, it also sends out large warning signs.
What if they are bestowed with a bad run of form going into next year’s multinational event? With the rest of players unable to rise to the mark, the onus on the top three to keep performing is tremendous and unless the middle order can reverse its fortunes, the signs look ominous, to say the least.
(Sarah Waris is a postgraduate in English Literature and has taken on the tough task of limiting the mystic world of cricket to a few hundred words. She spends her hours gorging on food and blabbering nineteen to the dozen while awaiting the next Indian sporting triumph)