World Cup 2019: Failing to pick a reliable No. 4 hurts India in semifinal

The inability of the selectors and the team management to groom a reliable middle-order for the World Cup ended up hurting India.

Rishabh Pant walks back after throwing his wicket away in the semifinal against New Zealand.   -  Reuters Photo

“India thought too much about No. 4 but it was 1, 2, 3 that lost them the match.”

“Dhoni yet again left it too little too late.”

Even before India lost the review for the last wicket, which made its second successive semi-final exit from a World Cup official, the social media was abuzz with memes and forwarded messages. These two were among the most viral forwards across digital platforms.

There will be millions who will either be shedding a tear or downing their sorrow in a drink or two - but before they recover from the heartbreak, it’s time to get the notion straight.

Neither Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, K.L. Rahul, each of whom returned to the Old Trafford pavilion after having scored a single, lost India a tricky chase of 240. Nor was it Mahendra Singh Dhoni - whose run out, just like his ODI debut 15 years ago, after getting India back in the game along with Ravindra Jadeja sealed the fate of the game.

Read: The ‘bits and pieces’ of a Jadeja special

In fact, it was the inability of the middle-order to rise to the occasion and more importantly, inability of the selectors and the team management to groom a reliable middle-order for the World Cup ended up hurting India.

All along the build-up to the World Cup, the connoisseurs, critics and fans were wondering who will bail India out if it finds in a 10 for 3 sort of a stutter. And the question was staring large at the worst possible moment when India was reduced to five for three in a chase on a tricky Manchester pitch.

The triumvirate at the top - with Rahul replacing an injured Shikhar Dhawan and joining Rohit and Virat - had a wonderful run at the league stage. But a combination of quality bowlers exploiting helpful conditions and the pressure of a knock-out game exposed India's batting.

It left India’s middle and lower-middle order with a gargantuan task of keeping the World Cup dream alive. Dinesh Karthik and Dhoni had the experience. Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya had the flair and Jadeja’s inclusion along with that of Bhuvneshwar Kumar lend some depth to the batting. Still, the confidence - to pull things off was always going to be missing.

Also read: '45 minutes of bad cricket puts you out of the World Cup'

Ever since the Champions Trophy in 2017, India has been in search of a reliable No. 4 in ODIs. With Rohit, Dhawan and Virat being in stupendous touch, seldom do No. 4 and 5 get a regular hit in the park. That makes it overtly critical to back a bunch of two or three batsmen identified by the selectors and the think-tank. However, over the last two years, more than grooming batsmen, it appears that the system has ended up destroying the confidence of most of the contenders.

It has resulted in a couple of front-runners for the No. 4 right after the Champions Trophy — being sidelined for more than a while from the ODI set-up; a couple others confused about their role despite being in the squad and the most eligible contender having retired mid-way through the World Cup for being ignored for no reason.

In the World Cup alone, India had almost half-a-dozen No. 4s, with Rishabh Pant getting more opportunities than anyone else. Pant, no doubt, is one of the most talented youngsters in Indian cricket. But with his lack of maturity - which came to the fore with his poor shot-selection yet again in the semifinal - and instinctive style of batting, Pant was going to be far from being a reliable No. 4, at least in 2019.

Also read: Kohli on buzz around Dhoni's future: 'He hasn't told us anything'

One couldn’t help but wonder if Ambati Rayudu or Shreyas Iyer or Manish Pandey or even Ajinkya Rahane would have ended up being a much better option to persist with till the World Cup. However, once the think-tank decided to move on from all of them with reasons best known to them, it was always going to be a huge risk entering a big-ticket event.

Now, with New Zealand having reached the finals, there’s no point in pinning the blame on individuals. But it’s time for Indian cricket to introspect the events of the last couple of years and ensure it’s not repeated.