New Zealand v India, 2nd ODI, Wellington March 5, 2009

Will India's No. 3 please stand up?


It is unlikely that Mahendra Singh Dhoni's move up the order can be a permanent one © AFP
 

So who is India's No. 3 for ODIs? Gautam Gambhir? Only when Sachin Tendulkar plays. But wait a minute, didn't Mahendra Singh Dhoni feature at one-down in the Napier ODI with Tendulkar opening with Virender Sehwag? Gambhir didn't even get to bat then.

Suresh Raina would be a close guess, but he has done it only five times out of his past 11 matches, and on 15 occasions during his 61-match career.

How about Yuvraj Singh? Not really, having batted at No. 3 14 times in his 228 games. But he can make a surprise appearance every now and then.

It must be Dhoni then. Only if he thinks the team needs somebody to anchor an innings or, in his words, to capitalise on a good or decent start. He has shown, more than the others, the aptitude to play knocks that keep an innings together. He has felt the need more often of late - twice in the last three matches. But with wicketkeeping duties to boot, it is unlikely the move up can be a permanent one.

So the better question to ask is, who isn't India's No. 3? Sehwag and Tendulkar are not. But Sehwag does not rule out Gambhir's return to the opening slot. "He could come in my place, or Sachin's place. It depends on how we go ahead," he said.

That leaves Yusuf Pathan, who hasn't batted at No. 3 in his 18-match career so far, but with this Indian team who can say?

If there is no designated No. 3, can the batting order wear a settled look? The approach may work against a team as methodical as New Zealand which has a plan for every batsman; it certainly worked during the Twenty20s. New Zealand also have strategies for different phases of an innings; these cannot be implemented fully when the opposition keeps shuffling its batting order.

The Indian line-up is imposing with everyone capable of batting anywhere. "It's good for the Indian team because if someone can bat at three and five, and can change their batting order, they get more opportunities to score," Sehwag said. "Sometimes if you are going by the rhythm, it's not good for the team. We did that when we chased successfully 16 consecutive times. Everytime the No. 3 would be Irfan, Dhoni, or somebody else.

"They were surprised when MS [Dhoni] came to bat at three [in Napier]. They didn't know what to do. They thought maybe MS had come to hit, but he played sensibly and batted through the overs."

Dhoni took the uncertainty game one step ahead after India won the previous match. That involved the roles the different batsmen were supposed to play. One of the keys is for one batsman to provide stability from one end so that the likes of Sehwag, Yuvraj, Raina and Yusuf can play their natural game.

"We have Sachin, Gautam and lower down the order, myself, who can do this job," Dhoni said. "But in between we change that also, so the opposition can't really be sure that the batsmen will play their innings in a certain way. At times he is given the responsibility to play aggressive cricket too, because the opposition keeps thinking he will look to take the innings through."

Tendulkar, Gambhir and Dhoni are indeed capable of playing aggressive cameos as much as they are capable of anchoring the innings. But the next big surprise would be for a Yuvraj or a Raina to bat out the 50 overs, and see others around him go after the bowling.

But there is a fine line between a clever, better shuffle and a muddle. If the ploy surprises the opposition, it must also leave the batsmen themselves a touch unsure. By the time the captain-coach combine of Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell was done, a major criticism was that with so many shuffles no batsman was certain of what his role in the side was.

But with the current squad it seems every batsman buys into the idea of adaptability. A big test for this scheme will come when the team hits a bad patch. For Dhoni and Gary Kirsten, it has been so far so good. As of now, they seem to like the idea that New Zealand will be fretting over who will come to bat at No. 3 on Friday at the Westpac Stadium.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo

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