Despite options in plenty, India's middle-order quandary remains unresolved ahead of CWC 2023
With the Asia Cup starting, India will look to utilise the tournament to get clarity on their squad for the World Cup, which is just a month away.
The Indian cricket team will go into the 2023 ODI World Cup as hosts, with the familiar problem of finding the perfect candidate to take up the number four spot. With experienced players like Shreyas Iyer, K L Rahul and Rishab Pant plagued by long-term injuries throughout the year, the Indian team has been experimenting with different players in the position, struggling to settle on a solid middle order.
In a press conference earlier this month, skipper Rohit Sharma admitted that there are a lot of questions in the squad that need to be answered. He said, “Look, No. 4 has been an issue for us for a long time. After Yuvi (Yuvraj Singh), nobody has come and settled themselves in the role.”
“For a long period of time, Shreyas (Iyer) has actually batted at No 4 and he has done well — his numbers are really good. Unfortunately, injuries have given him a bit of trouble; he has been out for a while and that is honestly what has happened in the last 4-5 years,” he added.
What happened last time?
Before the 2019 World Cup, then-captain Virat Kohli had claimed that Ambati Rayudu had been identified as the ideal number four batsman for the tournament, following his convincing performance in the 2018 Asia Cup. For a team that had struggled to fill the position left by batter Yuvraj Singh, Rayudu seemed to have solved the long-standing issue.
However, one month before the tournament, Rayudu was dropped from the World Cup squad and replaced by Vijay Shankar, whom the selectors saw as a "three-dimensional" player, who can contribute with the ball as well.
Shankar played just three matches in the tournament and batted only twice in the number four position, before being ruled out of the tournament due to injury.
With the Indian team aiming for their first ICC trophy since 2013, the Asia Cup beginning on August 30 will give an idea of what to expect from the team in the World Cup. Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul found themselves back in the squad, hoping to end India's search for a set batter at number four.
Here is a look at the possible choices for the number four position:
The 28-year-old last played for India in March against Australia and has been the most prolific batter in the number four position, despite being out with injury. He has played 20 innings at No 4, scoring 805 runs at an average of 47.4. In his last 10 ODI outings, Shreyas has scored one ton and two fifties.
In an interview posted by BCCI on X (formerly known as Twitter), the Mumbai-born batter said that he is "thrilled" to be back in the team. He said, "For me, it is important right now to be in the present and do my routines right. I don’t want to think about what is going to happen beyond and what has happened in the past. I am ticking all the boxes day by day. In terms of preparation, I had a fantastic two days of practice with the boys, and also, it was competitive. So happy to be embracing every moment."
Rahul had not been included in the Indian squad since he picked up a thigh injury during IPL 2023. In Shreyas' absence, he has only played seven innings in the number four position, scoring just 241 runs.
However, he has established himself as the leading contender for number five, where he averages 53.0. His ability to counter-spin and pace in the middle of the match is a testament to his value at that position. In 54 ODIs, KL Rahul has scored 1986 runs at an average of 45.13.
Additionally, since 2020, he has featured as the team's designated wicket-keeper, further increasing his chances of making it to the World Cup squad.
Veteran India opener Shikhar Dhawan believes Suryakumar Yadav should be chosen for India's No.4 spot at the ICC World Cup, citing his experience and performance in international cricket.
"I would go with Surya at four as he is an experienced player and has been playing international cricket for a while," Shikhar Dhawan told PTI.
With Suryakumar's hot and cold performances in the recent past and the returns of Shreyas and Rahul, the 32-year-old's place is all the more in doubt.
In 25 ODIs, Suryakumar has scored 476 runs at a dismal average of 23.80.
His last fifty came against the West Indies back in February 2022. Since then, barring an unbeaten 34, Suryakumar has been dismissed in 16 innings he has batted, with the top score being 31 versus New Zealand in January 2023. Notably, in the ODI series versus Australia in March this year, the right-handed batter registered three successive ducks.
Tilak Varma was the leading run-scorer in the recently concluded West Indies series, with 173 runs in five matches at an average of 57.67.
Former India captain Sourav Ganguly felt Tilak Varma could solve the No.4 puzzle in the Asia Cup and ICC World Cup at home in case Shreyas Iyer is not available.
“Who said we don’t have a No. 4? We have so many (batsmen) who can bat at that spot. I think differently; my mindset is different. This is a fantastic side," Ganguly said on the sidelines of an event in Kolkata.
Veteran India spinner Ravichandran Ashwin says Tilak Varma can be an X-factor for India in the 50-over World Cup. Ashwin asserted that the reason why Varma would fit in the squad is due to India’s search for left-handers and its persistent middle-order woes.
He also proved his mettle with the ball during the series against West Indies.
Former Indian left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha has also batted for Tilak Varma saying, "Is there a possibility of expediting Tilak Varma’s inclusion to help settle the Number 4 debate for Team India in ODIs? He appears promising, displays strong composure, and adds the advantage of being a left-handed batter.”
Best of the rest
Additionally, players like Ishan Kishan, Sanju Samson, Hardik Pandya and Axar Patel have featured in the number four position for India, but have failed to impress. Hardik is a mainstay of the ODI side and is more likely to continue playing at his usual no 5 spot.
Kishan, who is mostly contesting against Sanju Samson for the reserve wicketkeeper role, has a better batting record opening for India, scoring three back-to-back fifties in India's tour of West Indies last month. Samson on the other hand failed to impress against West Indies and has been named as the travelling standby player for Asia Cup.
According to Ravichandran Ashwin, if KL Rahul is not fit for the World Cup, Samson could be included as a wicketkeeper-batsman.
"The only way that can happen is if KL Rahul doesn't get fit, and when they need a keeper, they can open with Ishan Kishan. That's the only possibility because Shreyas Iyer is one of the go-to players for team India in ODIs as a batter," Ashwin said on his YouTube page.
Left-handers Axar Patel and Ravindra Jadeja are also key in shaping India's middle order as India does not have a left-hander in the top six. This could be crucial in facing left-arm spinners and also gives India the advantage of being able to play an additional all-rounder.
With the Asia Cup starting on August 30, India will look to utilise the tournament to get clarity on their squad for the World Cup, which is just a month away.
India's head coach Rahul Dravid informed that KL Rahul will not be available for India's group stage matches of the Asia Cup, leaving the team with yet another gap in the squad. If both Rahul and Iyer make a return, their presence will lift the Indian side as they can slot in well.