Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have been among the all-time best opening partnerships in one-day cricket, with 16 century stands, including, most recently, the 127 they put on against Australia in this World Cup. That Dhawan batted with a fractured thumb through most of that innings shows his grit. He’s desperately unlucky to be now ruled out of the tournament.
Normally, a disruption of the top order, which has been a cornerstone of India’s ODI success in recent years, would have unsettled the team. But K.L. Rahul’s 57 against Pakistan in an opening partnership of 136 with Sharma has eased the atmosphere in the Indian camp.
But it reopens the debate over the number four slot, which Rahul vacated. India going two down only in the 39th over against Pakistan meant that power-hitter Hardik Pandya came out at number four. But who will occupy this crucial position if a couple of wickets fall early?
The Indian management and selectors have done well to take an early call of bringing the dynamic young left-hander Rishabh Pant into the World Cup squad in place of Dhawan, his teammate at Delhi Capitals in the IPL. Pant is dubbed a reckless T20 hitter by some, which is unfair considering his Test average of nearly 50, with centuries in England and Australia. He has proved he can put his head down and bat for long stretches when required.
Skipper Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri could well make the bold call of throwing Pant straight into the playing eleven at number four. It brings back a left-hander into the batting order after Dhawan’s departure, for one. It would also raise the power-hitting potential of the team, putting opposition leg-spinners, in particular, under pressure. India would want him to attack England’s Adil Rashid, for example.
That would give an option of playing either Vijay Shankar as a medium pace bowling all-rounder or Kedar Jadhav as a batting all-rounder to bowl some round-arm off-spin on a dry wicket. They would share the bowling with all-rounder Pandya.
Street-smart Jadhav and potential six-hitter Shankar look good as late order batsmen, like Pandya, and not as the anchor at number four. Playing both of them could weaken the batting.
Pant, who had great success at number four for Delhi Capitals in the IPL, has the potential to add a new dimension to the middle order, which hasn’t really been tested. The only time it came into play was against South Africa, where Rahul batted at number four.
A tempting option is to push M.S. Dhoni up to number four, which would then allow both Jadhav and Shankar to be accommodated down the order. But why mess with a match-winner like Dhoni? It would expose him to the new ball should two wickets fall in the first 10 overs.
Rahul filled the number four slot after several others had been tried ever since Ajinkya Rahane’s ODI form slid last year. The tall, stylish right-hander from Bengaluru acquitted himself well in India’s first World Cup game against South Africa. He then handled the intense pressure of opening the batting in place of Dhawan to help set up a win against arch-rivals Pakistan.
Rahul’s confidence had taken a hit after a series of failures on a tour of England last year. But he applied himself well in the IPL. The change he has made is in playing the ball late, which helps to cope with the initial seam and swing movement in English conditions. That he’s also as good a stroke-maker as any gives India a great replacement for Dhawan at the top, while opening up new options down the order.
The good news for India in having all these options is that it’s a show of the country’s rich cricketing resources, thanks in large part to the IPL. Now it’s up to the think tank of Kohli, Dhoni, Sharma, and Shastri to make the best use of all the talent at their disposal. So far, they’ve made bold calls both in selection and in choosing to bat first against Australia at the Oval.
For rival teams, the relief of seeing the back of Dhawan may be short-lived because it brings two dangerous hitters to the stage in Rahul and Pant. One is reminded of the 2003 World Cup, where injuries to Michael Bevan and Darren Lehmann brought in Andrew Symonds, who proved pivotal in Australia going on to lift the trophy.
Sumit Chakraberty is the author of 2019 Cricket World Cup Thinking Cap.