Virat Kohli was India’s best batsman in the Tests. He was setting the tone. He was taking Australia on. He was the face of the Indian team on this tour. He has also been an extremely successful No. 3 batsman in the world for a while. Arguably the best going around in the world at the moment. When Sachin Tendulkar retired from Tests, Kohli spoke about how he had always wanted to set up situations rather than react to them. Not that he wasn’t good at No. 4 – he averages 61 at 4 and 52 at 3 – but you want your best batsman to face as many balls as possible. He played at four because Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir were in the team. It has been curious then that Kohli has now dropped down to No. 4, sending in – at times – the inexperienced Ambati Rayudu to face the new ball.
When Kohli moved to No. 4, against West Indies in Delhi in October 2014, he had gone 16 international innings with just one half-century to his name, including a failure against West Indies at home too. India’s best batsman was struggling against the new moving ball, and they were getting desperate about it. Out of desperation came the move down to No. 4, and Kohliscored 62 in his first effort after demotion. He went on to score a hundred later from No. 4 later during the home season.
When he regained his confidence during the Tests in Australia – not just regained, he had multiplied it – you would have thought that Kohli would reassume his position in the ODIs: you don’t want to waste precious balls at the top of the innings by sending in a lesser batsman. Yet when Shikhar Dhawan fell in the first over in the MCG ODI, out came Ajinkya Rahane. And when Rahane moved up to open in Rohit Sharma’s absence at the Gabba, Dhawan’s wicket in the third over brought out Rayudu.
Were India protecting their best batsman? Trying to limit their losses with the new balls. On the face of it defensive, but in their minds a sensible move. If you look at the ODI against West Indies in Dharamsala, on 17 October 2014, you would think that to be the case. For a change India got off to a good start, losing their first wicket in the 12th over. And out came Kohli. And he scored a century. On the evidence of the first two ODIs India have played in Australia, they are going to continue with their flexible strategy. If the first wicket falls early, Rahane or Rayudu goes out to bat at No. 3 and tries to blunt the new ball. If the openers have batted for 10 overs, Kohli goes back to No. 3.
Quite convenient for the best batsman in the team, we will say, when he should be facing the tough situations head on. But the team says this is a considered move, and a forced one. The game has changed. You want your best batsmen in the final 20 too, where the big runs can be scored. Although India need to keep in mind that the innings graphs in Australia tend to be more even: it is not as easy to clear these grounds as it is in Indias and South Africas.
Also India’s lower middle order is almost non-existent now. The new rules mean India need to play five specialist bowlers. After years spent on developing Ravindra Jadeja as a hitter, India don’t have his services at the moment. It sounds good to say the best batsman should play as many balls as possible, but they also need somebody to hold an innings together should the start not be good.
MS Dhoni’s explanation for Kohli’s move down the order was typical of Dhoni in press conferences: unclear and saying many things at once. He wants to both protect Kohli against the new ball, and strengthen the middle order. “We have to make the middle order strong, the middle and the lower middle order,” Dhoni said after India’s massive loss to England in Brisbane.