India seek clarity over No. 4 slot
This trip to New Zealand will provide several young India players their first taste of international cricket in the country. India will also get to play at some of the venues for the 2015 World Cup. Apart from those broader experiences, this tour will also give India a glimpse of the man who could possibly take over from Yuvraj Singh as the first choice No. 4 ODI batsman in time to come.
Who will be that man? Will it be the back-up No. 4 Suresh Raina, who has long wanted to bat up the order? Will it be Ajinkya Rahane, who after quite some time on the sidelines, has slowly started to exert his presence? Or will it be Ambati Rayudu, who has travelled with the squad without playing much?
During the home series against Australia in October, India had sent Raina ahead of Yuvraj to try and increase their options for the No. 4 position, with an aim to give the backup sufficient exposure ahead of the World Cup. MS Dhoni had said that if Yuvraj's form and health held up till the World Cup, he would continue to be the preferred No. 4. Only two short series later, against West Indies and South Africa, Yuvraj has been dropped for lack of form, and the New Zealand tour has become a lot more important for the claimants to the No. 4 spot.
Had Yuvraj travelled to New Zealand, he and Raina would have completed the first-choice top five, leaving no room for Rahane or Rayudu, barring an injury or acutely wretched form. Now at least one of them, if not both, will get their chance over five ODIs.
While Rahane finally got a run in Tests in South Africa following Sachin Tendulkar's retirement, in ODIs, their positions appear far from settled. Rayudu debuted and played four ODIs compared to Rahane's one on the Zimbabwe tour last July, and came in at No. 4 each time. Even Cheteshwar Pujara, who has somehow barely been in the ODI framework, played more games than Rahane on that trip. However, in South Africa, Rahane was the chosen replacement when an injured Yuvraj missed the Durban ODI. He then made 47, 15, 51* and 96 in the two Tests, providing the kind of solidity which India have generally lacked at No. 6 since the departure of Sourav Ganguly in 2008.
Rahane's relatively tight technique, as compared to Rayudu's, can be very useful at No. 4, especially with the next World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in mind. His ability to build an innings can even free up Virat Kohli to further play his naturally aggressive game at No. 3. Rahane has also shown in Twenty20s, both domestic and international, that he can score quickly. How well he can balance the changing demands a long No. 4 ODI knock brings will have to be seen.
Where Rayudu scores over Rahane is on the power front. He has demonstrated several times in the IPL what a destructive hitter he can be. Compared to Rahane, Rayudu is more like Yuvraj in the sense that his natural instinct is to attack. He will defend the good deliveries, but that will be after reluctantly concluding that he has no scoring options. Like Yuvraj, he can be pretty nervy early in his innings. He has had more than his share of issues in the past, but with a supportive state association and a steady IPL stint, he has become much calmer. With the new fielding restrictions, Rayudu could be another link in the batting order of power-hitters on flat home pitches, although Rahane appears to be the more viable all-condition option.
One of these two could stake a strong claim over No. 4 in the New Zealand ODIs, but it is possible that neither might, especially if the team management decides to give the preferred backup Raina more exposure in the slot. Raina batted four innings at No. 4 in the Australia series. Each time he got a start, and each time he did not convert it into a big score, with a highest of 39 in Pune that was cut short by his favoured heave, a mis-hit to third man. Whether Raina has the appetite to bat long in ODIs has been questioned in the past, but Dhoni had countered that by saying he needed to be given more time to adapt, having batted at lower positions for most of his career.
Apart from the above three batsmen, two left-field options could be Stuart Binny and Ravindra Jadeja. Dhoni is no stranger to left-field. He stuck and persevered with Jadeja in the XI while the world joked and laughed. Few are laughing now; Jadeja's bowling and fielding skills are there to be seen. He has come across as a limited batsman at international level, especially against the short ball. But two things must be said in his favour. He bats way down the order for him to have any time to think about constructing an innings. And as far as the short ball goes, the back-up No. 4's problems with it are almost legendary now, but they haven't removed Raina from the reckoning.
Binny is untested with both bat and ball at international level. He comes across as a safer and more assured hitter than Jadeja in the IPL, but that tells us little of his ability to bat up the order. He does have seven first-class hundreds, the same as Jadeja. Dhoni has said that Binny can be called upon to score quick, late runs, to go with his swing bowling. Probably that is the only role the captain has for Binny at the moment, but one never knows, especially with Dhoni. He has made a successful opener out of a man who disappointed for so long in the middle order. Who does he have in mind as India's future ODI No. 4?
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo