As soon as Shikhar Dhawan was ruled out of the tournament because of a fractured thumb, a Pandora box of India’s incompetence opened up. India is literally figuring out its playing XI for the world’s biggest cricket tournament during the tournament.
They say they are struggling with a “number 4 batsman” i.e. a batsman who could bat at number 4 after Kohli. Is batting at number 3 any easier than batting at number 4? Why can’t a batsman batting at number 6 bat at number 4? What is the difference? What is so peculiar about batting at number 4? If we find the answer to this question we might see why everything is not right with team India. What is this number 4 conundrum?
Indians have started judging the players too much on the basis of some stats and have started ignoring the core cricketing skills. We look at averages, strike rates, runs, boundaries and many other things. The problem here is that statistics can’t define a player or rather they aren’t enough to profile a player. For example, if you compare the performances of India’s opening pair in India vs Pak game, most of us would call KL Rahul’s innings too slow. After all, he played with a strike rate of 73 and Rohit Sharma played with the strike rate of 123. But who faced Mohammad Amir the most in his first spell? It was KL Rahul. Rohit Sharma played most of the balls from Hasan Ali, who is nowhere close to Amir when it comes to lethal bowling. And even with this Sharma gave four inside edges that raced to the boundary. It is way more easy to score runs against Shadab Khan and Hasan Ali as compared to Mohammad Amir. You don’t look at the stats that tell you which player played which bowler and in which overs while making a judgement. Or which player scored how many runs out of lucky edges. Do You?
Likewise, stats don’t tell you in which overs did the batsmen bat. For instance – Kedar Jadhav who was recently dropped, he actually never got a chance to showcase his batting skills in this tournament. Except for one game, in all other matches he came to bat when only a few overs were left. You can very well find these stats, but it would simply be an overwhelming amount of data, making it very difficult to reach a conclusion.
India tried or is trying to play with players like Rishabh Pant, Vijay Shankar, Mayank Agarwal, who have negligible if not zero international exposure. I am not saying that they are not talented, I am pointing out to the fact that India plays around 30 One Day Internationals in a year, what happened to the other batsmen who were playing for India in international matches for past four years? Why didn’t India come with the tried and tested players like Ajinkya Rahane, Ambati Raydu or Manish Pandey? Yes, you can again find flaws in their stats, but the players you brought had no stats at all. It is like make Kejriwal the prime minister because Modi is not 100%. The world cup is not a tournament to launch new players. Is it? Or did the IPL’s 20 over performance and glamour took precedence over the 50 over skills?
There is a reason as to why India could not find middle order batsmen. To explain it better, let us look at the last game India played in the world cup, against Sri Lanka. India had still not found its number 4 batsmen. However, the match against SL could have been used to find one. How? By resting its key players like Virat kohli or Rohit Sharma. India had nothing to lose, even if they lost the game, they were already in the top four. They could have asked Rishabh Pant to open the innings and Mayank Agarwal or DK to come one down. Playing Lasith Malinga would have given some necessary exposure to the new players and some hint to the team management as to if these players can deliver in a crisis. The problem is if you keep the top three fixed, they would play most of the overs, you won’t be able to test other batsmen at all. The only difference between playing at number 4 and playing at number 6 or 7 is the age of the ball the batsman plays with. India did the same all around the year, kept the star players in the team and try to experiment with the other players. If you have to test a player for the number four position, you have to make him play in the beginning, with the new ball and against the quality bowlers. It won’t help if the player comes to bat at number 4 but in the 30th or 40th over.
Indian senior players did not see anything beyond their personal records and the team management never saw anything beyond the rankings of the team.
ICC’s revolutionary move after 2011 World Cup of introducing two new balls from the two ends in an inning amplified this number 4 crisis. ICC’s aim was to make the middle overs more interesting and it did make the middle overs exciting. This move was coupled with shrinking the boundaries making it easier for the technically sound batsmen to score runs by pure cricketing shots like driving the ball, playing with the straight bat, using wrists and opening the face of the bat. Technically sound batsmen like Virat Kohli have successfully utilized these new rules. They are crunching runs like never before. However at the very same time, since the balls are never older than 25 overs now, it makes it even more difficult for pinch hitters to hit the bowl against quality bowling attack.
The problem occurs when the top order batsmen fail to perform. When I say fail, I don’t mean failing to score runs, I mean failing to stay on the crease for long enough. The pinch hitters or the hard hitters are simply incompetent to bat with a new shinning, quick ball. Playing with an old ball is relatively easy as compared to playing with a new ball. The people who have played cricket at even a club level would straight away agree with me. The same goes for the bowlers. If the strike bowlers of the team fail to take wickets or build pressure on the opposite team, the average bowlers don’t seem to be effective at all.
We see these two effects in Indian team every now and then. If the top three batsmen fail, the complete batting order collapses like a pack of cards. If one of the strike bowlers has a bad day, the captain is found searching for the bowlers in the team and end up bowling himself. This inadequacy of the team is politely called as Being Unpredictable.
India is taking hitters a little too seriously compared to technically sound players. If a player scores most of his runs by brute hitting force or scores most of his runs in Mid Wicket or Mid On (without using wrists), he should probably be sidelined. They are called “leg lapeta“, ESPN Cric Info actually added one such words in their list of local cricket words, “Lappa” which means “A wild swing of the bat, or a slog towards the leg side”. I think the Indian National team deserves better than Lappas. Technical batsmen can produce better results. If you look at Ind VS Aus, the only game that India won against a good team (against Eng we lost, with NZ the game was washed out), the top three batsmen scored 256 runs of 256 balls. By the time hitters came, the ball was already soft enough. Unfortunately, Shikhar Dhawan is not there to play with the new ball. Now we are dependent on only three players, out of which, Rohit Sharma gets a lot of edges and nicks. If he gets unlucky we lose the game.
Why don’t the teams send their pinch hitters (hard hitters) in the first ten overs during the power play? There are only two players outside the circle and hence the hitters won’t find a catcher in the deep while playing a lofted shot. It would make more sense. Wouldn’t it? Or why do a team’s best bowlers open the bowling attack? Why don’t we let the spinners open the bowling attack? The age of the ball!
I see a lot of people upset with the way Dhoni is batting. I don’t understand why. He was always a brilliant keeper, a brilliant strategist or captain and a brilliant hitter. He is still the same, but somehow people started expecting long innings from him. He won’t be able to do that with the ball not being old enough and on English pitches, it is simply not his skill set. He was a finisher and he is still a finisher, let him come after say 40 overs and he will be the finisher you are looking for. But if you expect him to play in the fifteenth over like a top-order batsman, he won’t be able to do much. His is the classic case where you misread the stats and profile of a player. Virat Kohli failed to do what Dhoni did before 2011 world cup; get rid of some popular faces. The team is currently playing with three wicketkeepers in the playing XI for starters, that’s a joke in the name of a balanced team.
As and when technique, skills of the players are given precedence against his performance in IPL or his personal records or glamour quotient, India would find its number 4. Finding number 4 is simply finding a reliable batsman. Most of the people who played even the very basic club cricket or are actively involved in professional cricket already know the things I mentioned. The question then arises, why isn’t anything being done in this regard.
The first explanation that comes to my mind is that cricket in India has become more of a source of entertainment for some & money for others rather than cricket as a sport. Indian Cricket authority is more interested in the means of generating revenue rather than winning the final of a big tournament. They would want India to reach the semifinals, and that’s it.
(This article was written before the India-New Zealand semi-final match)
An FPGA/Embedded Systems Development Engineer working on ADAS / Autonomous Vehicles and interested in Indian Politics.