Four years ago, KL Rahul began the World Cup by batting at No. 4 and No. 6 in the first two games before moving up to open after Shikhar Dhawan’s injury. Four players occupied the No. 4 slot across ten matches. Dinesh Karthik, who had batted once in the tournament before the semi-final, was asked to go in at No. 5 against New Zealand when the team was 5/3. Rishabh Pant wasn’t part of the original squad and had played a total of five ODIs before the World Cup, but he was batting at No. 4 in that semi-final. Ambati Rayudu’s omission, after months of him believing he was India’s No. 4 for the tournament, caused quite a stir too.
These may be top-notch players equipped to handle different challenges and situations, but it can’t be advisable to expect excellence at the biggest stage without providing familiarity and role clarity.
Cut to this World Cup, and the contrast is palpable. In the flawless eight-game winning run that India have had, there’s been complete clarity about the roles that each of them dons. Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill are tasked with providing fast starts in the powerplay. Virat Kohli is the anchor at No. 3 who holds the innings together. Shreyas Iyer and Rahul, at No. 4 and No. 5, have to be flexible with their approach during the middle overs. And now that Hardik Pandya is ruled out of the tournament, Suryakumar Yadav must provide the finishing kick at No. 6 along with Ravindra Jadeja at No. 7.
It’s only Pandya’s injury and Gill’s illness at the start of the campaign that has called for India to veer even slightly from their plans as a batting group. Meriting recognition is the security provided to Iyer and Rahul in particular. Usually the toughest spots to bat in 50-over cricket in the subcontinent are No. 4 and 5 — they call for an approach tailored to the state of the game during a phase when the surface tends to get slower and more difficult for boundary-hitting. In cognizance of the challenge, the selectors and team management have backed Iyer and Rahul to the hilt. Never mind their recent injuries raising a few eyebrows about their readiness for the World Cup. As coach Rahul Dravid said before the Asia Cup in August, they were clear about Iyer and Rahul for more than a year and it was only their injuries that had compelled India to try other options.
“No. 4 and No. 5 get discussed a lot and it gives the impression that we don’t have clarity on who is going to be there,” Dravid had said. “But to be honest, I could have told you 18 or 19 months ago who were the two or three candidates that we were looking at for the No. 4 or 5 slot. It was always going to be between Shreyas (Iyer), KL (Rahul) and Rishabh (Pant). If you look back at the teams that we picked 18 months ago, there were no doubts in our minds. It is unfortunate that all three ended up with injuries in the space of two months.”
That Iyer and Rahul played the most innings at No. 4 and 5 respectively in the four years between World Cups bears testimony to Dravid’s assertion. Importantly, both have repaid that trust. If Rahul’s defining contribution came in their opener against Australia when he hit an unbeaten 97 to help stage a recovery from 2/3 in a chase of 200, Iyer took charge on a tough surface against South Africa with an 87-ball 77.
The clarity about Suryakumar at No. 6 in Pandya’s absence has also been striking. While Kishan opened in Gill’s absence and also showed his middle-order credentials with a knock of 82 against Pakistan in the Asia Cup, it is Surya’s ingenuity and hitting range that India desire in that specific position.
“We are pretty clear about the kind of roles that people can play,” Dravid explained after Pandya’s injury against Bangladesh. “So, if you are looking for someone who might be a bit of an enforcer for us in the lower middle order, then Surya is certainly someone who can do that. If you are looking for someone a little bit higher up the order, then maybe we might go with Ishan.”
This sense of conviction has dovetailed nicely with flexibility about their bowling options. In line with the emphasis before the tournament on batting depth while picking the bowler at No. 8, Shardul Thakur was preferred to Mohammed Shami in the initial phase. But the moment Pandya was unavailable, they chose Shami to ensure that their five bowlers were the strongest possible. Shami has been unstoppable, zooming to the top of the wicket-takers’ list for India in just four games. The 33-year-old is usually Sharma’s first-change bowler, and he is required to keep up the pressure that Jasprit Bumrah exerts in his opening spell. Bumrah, too, had been subject to a long injury layoff earlier this year, but at no stage was his supremacy as the spearhead in doubt. Mohammed Siraj, Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav have also benefitted from backing that hasn’t wavered at any time this year.
None of this may guarantee success in the knockout stage, but it ensures India are in the best position possible to have a proper crack at ending their 10-year ICC title drought