CHENNAI: There was an interesting moment during the post-match press conference after the India - England clash during the 2019 ODI World Cup. Rohit Sharma was asked by a reporter if he was surprised to see Rishabh Pant, Shikhar Dhawan’s injury replacement, at No. 4 (an important position in the line-up) in his first WC match.
The centurion on that day took a pause and said, “Not really because you all guys wanted Rishabh Pant to play right?,” he had said. “You all guys where is Rishabh Pant? Where is Rishabh Pant? There he is at No. 4.” Although the then vice-captain had deflected the question in his typical candid manner, four years on, it still remains relevant. And this time, Sharma is the one who is at the helm, set to lead India into another ODI World Cup, this time at home.
In the two years leading up to the 2019 edition of the event, India had used as many as 11 batters at the aforementioned position with Ambati Rayudu playing the most (15) games. However, Rayudu was left out of the squad at the last moment with Shankar taking his spot. KL Rahul started at No. 4 before moving up when Dhawan got injured. It remained a flexible position where different batters came in based on match situations throughout the tournament before Pant was drafted in.
While the shuffling around hasn’t been as drastic as it was four years ago, there is a similar pattern in 2023 as well. Since September 2020, India have played seven batters at No. 4 in 41 games, with Shreyas Iyer topping the list (13 games). The wicketkeeper-batter whom Sharma spoke about on that evening in Birmingham is next on the list with nine games. At the moment, both of them are not available for selection. Iyer is out of action with a back injury and Pant is recovering from the car accident he suffered in December.
Ishan Kishan was tried at that position against New Zealand in January 2023 before bringing in Suryakumar Yadav, the T20I No. 4 who has aced the shortest format in the last 12 months. The 360-degree batter hasn’t left a stone unturned in T20s giving a dynamic look to the batting. His ability to take the attack to the bowlers and do it consistently over a period of time is what made Yadav stand out on the global stage.
When he was inducted into the ODI format, the hope of the team management was to replicate a similar approach in the middle overs. That said, the Mumbai batter hasn’t been able to replicate the same success in the 50-over format yet. Two ducks in as many matches in the ongoing ODI series against Australia doesn’t look good on him. Granted, he has been exposed to the new ball early, especially against Mitchell Starc, but it is expected of a No. 4 given the tendency of top-order collapses India have seen in crucial World Cup games over the years.
Every ODI game in the lead-up to the marquee event this year will be about figuring out the team combination and their top six. While Pant and Iyer might still come back into the squad before the World Cup, the consistency Rahul has shown at No 5 leaves only one spot open. Pant might have an edge as a southpaw, but it is yet to be seen how that pans out.
This is why, as the Men in Blue take on Australia in the third ODI in Chennai on Wednesday, all eyes will be on Yadav to see how he fares at the position. After all, as per the current schedule, India only have six bilateral ODIs and an Asia Cup before the World Cup.
Will Sharma and Co have a better answer for the No. 4 question come October?