When first looking at the title, you would be justified in thinking this is a relatively recent problem particularly for India – perhaps after the dip in the form of Suresh Raina, who was seen as the default number four in the team around the 2011 World Cup.
However, if you examine this more closely, it has been a problem for India since the Mohammad Azharuddin era.
The closest India has had to a solid number four since then were just three individuals – Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina – who all preferred other positions (number three for Rahul Dravid and Suresh Raina and number five for Yuvraj Singh).
Rahul Dravid is one of the greats of cricket. He should have put the question of the number four position to rest. But if you look at his scores, then you would discover he has perhaps played more successful matches as number three.
At times, however, his demotion felt forced. Irfan Pathan and MS Dhoni had been tried as number three purely to push the likes of Rahul Dravid to number four, indicating the problem was systematic.
Rahul Dravid. (Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images)
Other prominent names of that era were famous for their batting elsewhere. Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag were all seen as competent and deadly openers.
Greg Chappell infamously tried to resolve this by trying to push Sachin Tendulkar to the number four position, and the best way to describe how that ended would be his three-ball duck against Sri Lanka in the 2007 World Cup where he was bowled by Dilhara Fernando.
Others like VVS Laxman were tried in the 2006-07 Indian tour of South Africa but they were disastrous in their performances and Mohammad Kaif lost his form soon after that famous series.
The one man who did try to address this successfully was Yuvraj Singh, but even his brilliant 2011 World Cup performances came at number five.
He did migrate to be the number four player after the World Cup but apart from that 150 against England in 2017, there were no more notable performances to be the reliable number four with his form dipping immediately after.
Ambati Rayudu, the man who tried to solidify his position between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups as the number four, can be seen as a bit of a tragic case. He performed well in domestic cricket in the IPL and also had notable performances in the blue cap, but we all know what happened in the 2019 World Cup.
Now, there are two prominent individuals vying for the number four position: Shreyas Iyer and recent debutant Suryakumar Yadav. Rishabh Pant and opener by preference KL Rahul have also been experimented at number four. Whether they finally resolve this problem remains to be seen.
However, let’s analyse why the number four position is so tricky. England have their captain Eoin Morgan coming in at number four. The mighty Aussies had Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey in at that position.
Mike Hussey. (Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images)
At their peak Sri Lanka had either Kumar Sangakkara or Mahela Jayawardene at that position in a vast majority of their matches and Graeme Smith’s South Africa had a certain Jacques Kallis and for a good time in the 1990s Brian Lara was the number four for the West Indies.
These are some of the very best of pedigree of players, indicating how demanding the quality of the number four position can be. In ODIs, the number four position does not give you enough time to adjust, whether you are setting a target or whether you chase if you come in after the 30th over.
If the top-order wickets fall early, the number four batsman needs to be the patient accumulator – a bit like Cheteshwar Pujara or Steven Smith – but the same batsman needs to have David Warner’s or Virender Sehwag’s calibre of explosiveness if they are batting in the death overs. In the T20s, this becomes even trickier as the role from being the accumulator to the explosive player changes within just a couple of overs.
All these aforementioned batsmen have both the ability to be explosive and also the accumulator. In current-day cricket, the best men to be an ideal number four are perhaps Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli. However, both of these super players prefer to play at number three and this shows the conundrum of the number four position.
Ultimately, the openers lay a foundation and the number three batsman would drive the team towards their target with a big Steven Smith-like innings. Numbers five, six and seven require the aggression as they usually come in late and have less balls to play with.
This leaves the number four position to be the trickiest, as they probably have to do both. The failure of the great Sachin Tendulkar at this position is the greatest indication of how challenging this can be.
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