Shreyas Iyer, not Rishabh Pant, should be India’s bet for number four
Run hard, strike the odd boundary, keep the board ticking and build a partnership – Iyer ticked all the boxes an ideal number four should. Only, he was not batting at that spot.
Stasis is defined as a period or state of inactivity. At the end of every ODI World Cup, the game enters briefly in this state. Every thing is reset, and a new plan is laid down for the next cycle, for this is the key tournament as concerns cricket.
Every team then comes out of this inactivity in its own way. For England and Australia, and New Zealand and Sri Lanka, it is/will be via Test cricket. For India and West Indies, it is about a full-fledged tour across different formats, T20s, then ODIs and onto Tests.
The longer format is a different beast altogether, and a good way to move on from the physical and mental rigours of the World Cup. You get warm-up matches and even team dynamics are different – it is the reason why Australia and England look so energetic. In comparison, the men in blue and maroon have looked jaded, using the same stagnant ideas previously deployed in the World Cup.
A key issue for team India has been, and is still, the number four spot. It was no surprise that Rishabh Pant was slotted to bat there in the first washed-out ODI at Georgetown, and then did bat at the spot in the second ODI at Port of Spain on Sunday. One way to look at it is consistency – Pant last batted at number four in the World Cup.
It only seemed fair – the Indian dressing room has long suffered for a lack of consistency in the middle order. Their line-up at the World Cup was a makeshift one, and let it also be said here, Pant didn’t really set the stage alight. And poor form has followed him into the Caribbean – 0, 4, 65* and 20 are his four scores on this tour so far. Given the team management’s propensity for regular chop and change, such scores might not have been enough for any other batsman. Pant though is cut from a different cloth.
Thus far, Pant has struggled not only in consistency, but also the ability to learn from his mistakes. The coaching staff encourages his natural game, but this freedom ought to come at a cost, of understanding the game situation and occupying the crease with responsibility. So far it hasn’t, but maybe Pant will learn with time. The underlying point being his unmeasured adventurism at number four hurts the Indian batting especially in absences of MS Dhoni and Hardik Pandya. Without their collective firepower available, Pant shouldn’t be batting higher than number five, if even there.
And at this juncture, the narrative changes in favour of Shreyas Iyer.
At Port of Spain, Iyer walked in at 101-3, after Pant was out playing a rugged innings. The latter had himself come in at 76-2, and at a juncture wherein he really needed to bed down and pair up with skipper Virat Kohli for long, he tried to hit out from trouble. The onus of responsibility then was shifted on to Iyer, who, mind you, was playing his first international game since December 2017.
He showed great maturity and played the situation, knocking singles and doubles in hot and humid conditions, playing as Kohli does. Run hard, strike the odd boundary, keep the board ticking and build a partnership – Iyer ticked all the boxes an ideal number four should. Only, he was not batting at that spot.
Perhaps the biggest example of it was when West Indies put a strong cordon at point and square to grab anything wayward. Iyer didn’t give them a sniff, as he immaculately compiled an assuring half-century. Known for his booming drives and flamboyant cuts, he nailed down his game as per the situational demand, lending into the realization that maybe he should have batted higher up.
Essentially, this opens up the number four debate all over again. This is a vital spot in any ODI line-up because it transfers momentum from the top-order to the middle and lower order. It is key to how high the first innings’ score will be, or how deep the chase will go. From India’s point of view, strategically they are too dependent on their top three batsmen, and nothing has changed in that regard. Of course, it is too soon for any of that to happen just yet.
Iyer, though, has re-arrived on the scene to make a bid for solving that very problem. Back in 2017 too, he had put his hand up, but the Indian team management treated him as they did with Manish Pandey. Yuvraj Singh was favoured ahead of Pandey for the Champions Trophy that year, and Iyer was left in the cold behind the likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Dinesh Karthik, Rahul, Pandya, Kedar Jadhav and so on.
This merry go-round at number four ultimately cost India the World Cup, make no mistake about it. Meanwhile, Iyer went back to doing what he did best all these years. He scored a mountain of runs in the domestic wilderness, this time accentuated by outings with India-A, and even gained in leadership experience with Delhi Capitals in the Indian Premier League. This is a thrice-over summation factor of maturity, now amply displayed in his batting.
Indian cricket stands at the start of another ODI cycle and, undoubtedly, both Iyer and Pant will be playing a key part in how the next four years shape up. It is vital that the team management realizes the importance of assigning the right role to them, and thus allowing each to grow into that role. Pant, with his exuberance, has to marshal the finish, or atleast learn to do so, while Iyer looks to be the sure-shot bet for number four. It is time skipper Kohli backs the right horse for this job.