Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
What to do with Ajinkya Rahane in ODIs is a question India have grappled with since the last World Cup. As action moved to slower pitches, captain MS Dhoni identified him as a batsman who could open the innings but would struggle against the older, softer ball. With the opening positions packed with two of the best in ODI cricket right now, the other possible role for Rahane was to play in the middle order on quicker pitches outside Asia.
As captaincy changed hands, Virat Kohli went back to Rahane but used him mostly as an opener on slower surfaces. You could see Rahane was too good a batsman to give up on. Especially when he has the versatility of being able to bat at the top and in the middle. Kohli, though, made it clear he was in the squad exclusive as an opener or a back-up opener. That seemed like a waste at that time, but now on quicker pitches - and hoping for quick pitches in England too - Rahane has made a strong comeback as a contender for that dual role.
"I had said earlier that Ajinkya will be looked at as a third opener, but that situation can change because he has batted at No. 4 in a World Cup before," Kohli said a day before India start the ODI series in South Africa. "These conditions are such that you get to play fast bowling throughout the innings so he becomes a strong candidate for No. 4. Other than that we have Shreyas [Iyer], Manish [Pandey], Kedar [Jadhav] can play No. 5 and 6, Hardik [Pandya] is there, and MS [Dhoni] is obviously there. We have kept all these options open, we don't want to be one-dimensional. It depends whose technique is more suited to what spot. Especially in that particular country. All options are open."
This change of mind is not purely out of newfound love for Rahane. India have had an issue with the No. 4 position, and consequently with the whole middle and lower middle order, for a while now. So much so that they seem to be carrying four options for that one position. Their top three is arguably the best in the world, and they seem to be okay with Jadhav, Dhoni and Pandya sharing the positions of 5, 6 and 7 among themselves.
"It's about who takes that one particular spot," Kohli said. "It's not even spots above and below. Guys who are given the opportunity need to capitalise and really string in performances that convince the management and the team very soon that that guy is meant to play at that spot for the team. I feel the core of players is more or less pretty strong at the moment. Obviously changes can happen at any stage. You don't know whether someone is going to be in form or not or what the team requires at certain stages. How I see it, more or less the core is found.
"The lower middle order is more or less sorted. The combination is working well for us with Hardik and Kedar and MS rotating and batting together. No. 4 is something we have experimented with in the last couple of series. That is the only spot I can see that needs to be solidified otherwise the team looks pretty balanced."
It sounds great to nail it down to just one slot, but as a connect between the top order and the hitters, the role of that No. 4 becomes important. For a while now, the only two kind of matches India seem to lose is where either their bowlers get smashed by batsmen taking high risks on a flat pitch or if there is a slowdown in the middle and lower middle order. They have three series on quicker pitches - this one in South Africa, three matches in England, and a series in New Zealand early next year - before the World Cup, and Kohli will be aware the sooner someone nails that spot the better it is.
These series are also a chance for India to see how their wristspinners go on less helpful pitches after a bumper year at home. Kohli, though, sounded confident his side was on to a good thing with Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. "We are one of the few teams, or probably the only team in world cricket, to be blessed with two wristspinners," Kohli said. "And Kedar Jadhav doing the conventional job pretty well for the team. That's why I said the balance of the team is pretty good at the moment. Wristspinners help you in any conditions in the world. Wristspinners can go for six an over but they will pick you three wickets as well, which is eventually the difference in the game.
"We are happy to have two who are very different to each other. We don't have two leggies or two chinaman bowlers. Both are very different and versatile in their own way. I think that is going to be a major strength for this team going forward."