Filling a Shikhar-sized void: Selectors dial Rishabh Pant but who will open?

The team management will now have to rejig the opening combination. KL Rahul’s promotion to partner Rohit Sharma at the top will see the No.4 position fall vacant.

The official communication from the Indian camp says, “Shikhar Dhawan will be under observation”. The southpaw is certain to miss India’s next few matches and he could even be ruled out of the World Cup after suffering a fracture on his left thumb.

The team management will now have to rejig the opening combination. KL Rahul’s promotion to partner Rohit Sharma at the top will see the No.4 position fall vacant. Rishabh Pant is flying out to England as Dhawan’s cover at the moment. He will be drafted in as the replacement if the opener is ruled out of the tournament. Dhawan’s injury upsets India’s batting dynamics.

Rohit and Dhawan are India’s second most successful opening pair with 4,681 runs between them so far in 103 matches. Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly tower over the rest, with 6,609 runs from 136 ODIs. Both Rohit and Dhawan have scored a century apiece in this World Cup and more importantly, they complement each other. Dhawan’s injury means the left-right combination at the top will be broken.

Rahul had scored a century on his ODI debut. But over the last 12-odd months, he has been used as a middle-order batsman, mostly at No.4. It didn’t change at the World Cup as well, although chief selector MSK Prasad had spoken about picking Rahul as a reserve opener at the squad selection press conference. Rahul, though, opens the batting in Tests, which makes him a shoo-in as a replacement opener. Easier said than done. Opening thrives on partnership batting, and Rahul and Rohit have never played as opening pair before. It takes time for a new combination to gel.

The team management will have to find a new No. 4 as well, which remains the most vulnerable spot in the middle-order. With Dhawan staying in England for the moment, the think-tank will have to choose between Vijay Shankar and Dinesh Karthik for the next two matches – against New Zealand on Thursday followed by the game against Pakistan on Sunday.

However, the promptness in sending Pant to England doesn’t augur well for both Shankar and Karthik. That Rahul was picked ahead of them to bat at No.4 told a story. Also, the decision to send Pant probably marks the end of Ambati Rayudu’s international career.

The latter was a batting stand-by, along with the Delhi youngster, for the World Cup. An SOS to Pant all but makes Rayudu yesterday’s man. Pant carries a certain X-factor, which has gone in his favour. But against New Zealand at least, India will have to make do with either Shankar or Karthik. As far as Shankar is concerned, he made a serious impression during his 45 under pressure against New Zealand at Wellington earlier this year. That knock, and also a 41-ball 46 against Australia at Nagpur in March, gave him the ticket to England. His part-time seam bowling is a value addition. But is he, or Karthik, the ideal No. 4 in a World Cup?

At the 2003 World Cup, where India reached the final, Rahul Dravid was India’s No. 4. Four years later, Sachin Tendulkar batted in that position, although then India coach Greg Chappell’s decision to demote the team’s best batsman in the batting order resulted in a dressing-room revolt, as India failed to go beyond the group phase.

In 2011, the World Cup that India won, Virat Kohli was the team management’s preferred choice at No. 4. Yuvraj Singh, too, in the middle of a golden run, had batted in that slot on odd occasions. In 2015 in Australia, Ajinkya Rahane offered stability at the No. 4 position.

Shankar and Karthik are capable of making decent contributions. But they are basically squad players, not first-teamers. Pant, if he eventually replaces Dhawan, will be a more popular choice at No.4. The 21-year-old has two overseas Test hundreds to show for; in England and Australia.

Then again, Pant is yet to replicate his Test success in the short-form. In four ODI innings so far, he has scored just 93 runs. It was his relative lack of experience, which paved the way for Karthik’s inclusion in the World Cup squad. Pant has wowed everybody with his batting in the IPL. But this tournament is a different kettle of fish, both quality and pressure-wise. Not many moons ago, Pant had been booed at Mohali after he fluffed a couple of stumping opportunities. He won’t take the big gloves at the World Cup, but a couple of batting failures could have even bigger implications.

From that perspective, MS Dhoni is far better suited to bat No. 4, especially when the team doesn’t have a good start. He can absorb the pressure and lay the groundwork for someone like Pant to play his natural game towards the latter half of the innings. In Australia last winter, the former captain had made a match-winning 87 not out in the third ODI, batting at No. 4. In the previous two matches also, where he batted at No. 5, he scored half-centuries. Twice in those three matches, the openers had departed early. Dhoni’s batting was a reason why India won the series.

With Hardik Pandya wearing the mantle of the team’s most impactful finisher at the moment, the No.4 position offers Dhoni the leeway to build his innings at his own pace. This suits his recent batting approach.

The veteran, also, averages 56-plus, when he bats there.

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