In ‘After Yuvi Era’, India still seeking clutch No.4


At one point around the Asia Cup team announcement media briefing, India skipper Rohit Sharma assured reporters that the word ‘flexibility’ around the Indian team and its batting line-up did not mean ‘paagalpanti’ (madness) nor ‘tabaahi machaao’ (wreaking havoc). The openers won’t turn tail and the No.8 was not going to open. He also sought to remind his interrogators that “it’s not just one position who can win us the game or win us the tournament.” He didn’t refer to it directly, but the position that was discussed to death around the 2019 World Cup has returned like an annoying, buzzing nighttime gnat. It is the No.4 spot about which Rohit had only said somewhat ruefully earlier in the month, “After Yuvi, nobody has settled in at No.4.”

Rohit Sharma (L) and Rahul Dravid (R) during a training session in West Indies(AFP)

It was like listening to words from the previous century. When for around 15-odd years we mournfully kept saying “now that SMG has retired” we were still looking for the ideal opener. Until Virender Sehwag turned up. As regards the ODI No.4 slot, India has seen 17 batters in that position since Yuvraj Singh retired. A friend asked, isn’t that natural, given that it’s been like, 10 years? This is not Yuvi post 2011 World Cup glory that we’re talking of; Yuvraj has only been gone a little over five years, his last ODI in June 2017 versus West Indies.

Since then, in the After Yuvi Era (AYE) until the Asia Cup India have played 117 ODIs. Given India’s bench strength and oodles of talent, that successor to Yuvi should have been found by now. Maybe not in time for the 2019 World Cup, but for 2023, surely?

For the record, compared to India, no other frontline team has played as many ODIs during this period. Nor had a win/loss ratio like India’s at 2.20 (from 77 wins, 35 losses, 2 tied) — best across all teams that will play in the 2023 World Cup. England (53 wins, 26 losses, 1 tied from 87 matches) are second at W/L 2.03. Yet, why has Yuvi’s name suddenly been invoked and why is the No.4 spot again looking like a black hole, where talented contenders step into only to vanish?

This is because India is still looking for a gen next batting leader, the gut-busting, nerves-of-steel, clutch player. Like MS Dhoni, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli had showed signs of being halfway through the Noughties. The bowlers – Shami, Bumrah, Ashwin, Jadeja – have followed on magnificently from their predecessors, with Kuldeep Yadav, Axar Patel and Yuzvendra Chahal at their heels.

But take a look at any batter who has made his ODI debut post the 2011 World Cup and it is obvious no one fits that description. Other than Rishabh Pant. In that list of 17 AYE India No.4s, let’s remove Dhoni, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, yo-yo-ed out well before the 2019 World Cup, so that makes it 14. (After the 2019 World Cup, India tried out 11 No.4 candidates). Among them, Shreyas Iyer has played the most matches – 22 – before his injury and KL Rahul seems to prefer No.5 more. Pant sadly won’t be at this World Cup.

Of all the nations competing in the October-November World Cup, India are mid-table in the No.4 AYE averages @34.00, behind New Zealand, South Africa, England, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Post 2019 World Cup, India are at No.4, behind South Africa, England and Bangladesh, not doing better than 34.33, again having played the most ODIs.

India find themselves playing white-ball cricket more than any other team because of course, as BCCI likes to boast, it is they who support smaller cricket boards. At the same time, there has been enough opportunity to seek out, identify and bed in those new young batsmen who know how to own matches. Not just the many loyal support acts we see sprinkled through ODIs alongside Kohli on a nerveless chase, but someone who can kick on from a 25-over Rohit’s tabaahi machaao special, someone who will outshine them on the night. On a night when it matters, with the game on the edge. That’s the Yuvi factor that Rohit was too polite to spell out clearly. While he did say everyone was ‘desperate’ to win the World Cup, with India’s Gen Next batters we will soon be able to see who among them, in an era of T20 success, fame and wealth, emerges as the most desperate.

At the World Cup, India will no doubt be relying on batting belters, home advantage and the pressure of the crowd, but what they know they need is a middle-order tempo-conductor. Sehwag has said openers will own the World Cup, but then we’re getting into a power play strike rate competition where our top three are not exactly in vogue. The choice of Suryakumar Yadav for the Asia Cup is a bit of a punt, but it has come inspired by his T20 IPL successes; the only problem with the 50-over format is that it’s a bit of a two-faced mind-bender. Dhoni once said the format “contains glimpses of Test cricket and T20s – all of a sudden a team loses three or four wickets and you go and do the consolidating job and then go on with the slog.” Regardless of the Bazballing around it these days, ODIs do not follow the formula of T20s times two. Which is why extrapolating IPL success into ODI promise is nothing more than wishful thinking.

No one appears to love the 50-over contest these days until there’s a World Cup and suddenly everybody cares. Like now.


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