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Déjà vu as India running out of time to finalise No. 4 spot ahead of ODI World Cup

Indian cricket has washed up on a familiar shore amidst a tumultuous build-up to the ICC Cricket World Cup 2023, which begins on October 5.  

The lead-up to the previous edition of the tournament in 2019 and the subsequent campaign was engulfed with the debate around India’s No. 4 spot. Four years later, the ire and frustration around the unresolved issue seems to have only grown as the team’s ICC title drought extends into its 10th year. 

The acuteness of the predicament is amply borne by captain Rohit Sharma’s admission last week, “No. 4 has been an issue for us for a long time. After Yuvi (Yuvraj Singh), nobody has come and settled themselves in. But, for a long period of time, Shreyas (Iyer) has actually batted at No. 4 and he has done well — his numbers are really good.”  

Injuries to key players have had a fair share in adding to India’s middle-order morass. In fact, the top three run-scorers for the Men in Blue at the No. 4 spot in this World Cup cycle are racing against time to be fit for the quadrennial showpiece.  

* Samson, Kohli, Washington, Hardik and Axar have batted just once at No. 4 in this World Cup cycle

Shreyas Iyer, the most prolific, with 805 runs in 20 innings at an average of 47.35, is recovering from back surgery and hasn’t played since March. The enigmatic Rishabh Pant, second on the list, was finding his feet in the 50-over format before a horrific car crash ruled him out for at least a year. KL Rahul, who averages 63.00 in four innings at No. 4, is also on the road to recovery after injuring his thigh during the Indian Premier League.  

Eight others have been tried at that position since the 2019 World Cup semifinal defeat, with Ishan Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav being given the longest rope among them (six matches).  

A microcosm of India’s desperation of finding a suitable No. 4 was the recently concluded three-match series against West Indies. Hardik Pandya, Axar Patel and Sanju Samson played a round of musical chairs with the spot in the series, with only Samson staking a claim with a 41-ball 51.  

However, Samson’s mode of dismissals against spin on the Caribbean tour is alarming, especially considering he averages 104.5 and strikes at 116.11 against the tweakers in 10 ODIs. Ishan Kishan, who is ostensibly in a race with Samson for the reserve wicketkeeper’s slot, also strikes in excess of 110 and averages 46.71 against spin in ODIs. Moreover, his three back-to-back fifties in the ODI series in the Caribbean have put his role as a potential opening partner to Rohit in the spotlight. Suryakumar keeps pace with the two in terms of strike rate against spin (111.83) but averages just over 25.  

If Shreyas and Rahul are fit when the World Cup comes calling, Samson, Kishan and Suryakumar will find it tough to cement a spot in the playing eleven. But in case either can’t make it, Kishan could reprise the opening slot in the World Cup, the position he is most suited for.  

That could ruffle some feathers and contravene the popular notion that India’s top three – Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill and Virat Kohli – are untouchable.  

But Kishan’s role as opener would only push Gill to one-drop, his preferred position in Tests, and Kohli to No. 4, where he averages over 55 in 42 games, although he has batted in that position only twice in the last six years.   

This arrangement resonates with former coach Ravi Shastri too.  

“If Virat has to bat at four, he will bat at four in the interest of the side. You know, there were times I thought of it. Even in the previous two World Cups, when I was the coach in 2019, I thought I might have discussed that with MSK [Prasad] as well of him batting at four just to break that top-heavy line-up,” Shastri on Wednesday told  Star Sports. 

The selectors threw a curveball when they left out Ambati Rayudu, India’s most prolific batter at No. 4 between 2015 and 2019, ahead of the last edition. In came Vijay Shankar, with a ‘three-dimensional’ flavour and batted just twice in that position during the tournament.  

Such a gamble may not be in keeping with the tenor and time of the day, but with injuries and form clouding certainty, the selectors may be pushed to the edge.  

They may have a palatable option up their sleeve in Tilak Varma, who isn’t merely a left-field choice but a left-hander, which is a rare commodity in the Indian middle order. His 173 runs in five innings in the T20 series against West Indies won’t do his chances any harm either.  

The World Cup in 2019 stands as a palimpsest of the one that beckons in October; the team management is scrambling to iron out the persistent wrinkles while the fans wait with bated breath as they chalk out doomsday parallels between the build-ups of the two tournaments. 

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