India have been one of the best ODI sides over the past couple of years, along with England, and are considered one of the favorites for the World Cup 2019. They have managed to win every single bilateral series during this period barring two, and also finished as the runner-ups in the Champions Trophy.
But even in this period of dominance, one issue has persisted for the Indian team: the number four slot.
The middle muddle has been one of the major reasons for most of India's defeats over the past couple of years. And the unstable middle order has mostly been due to the continuous shuffling of the crucial number four slot.
At the beginning of the year 2017 Yuvraj Singh was tried for that position, but despite his decent showing with the bat, he was dropped due to fitness reasons. Next in line was KL Rahul, who was dropped after just three off-days in Sri Lanka.
Manish Pandey, Hardik Pandya, Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik, Shreyas Iyer and Ajinkya Rahane were tried for the same lot over the next four series. But later in the tour of England, none of them was batting at 4, despite all of them except Pandey performing well; it was Rahul at 3 and Kohli at 4.
Then came the Asia Cup where Rayudu and Karthik were given the opportunity, and both did reasonably well. The musical chairs then came to a halt when Rayudu slammed a hundred against West Indies, the first by someone batting below number three after nearly 2 years.
Kohli went on to say that Rayudu was being seen as the number 4 for the World Cup. Rayudu, for the first time in his career, was playing with the assurance and backing of the team management.
The Australia and New Zealand tours followed, and India's middle order started winning them games from tricky situations. It was the last ODI of the tour where Rayudu won India the game almost single-handedly, hitting a brilliant 90 and rescuing India from 18/4.
That knock was enough to put all doubts to rest about his ability to perform under pressure in foreign conditions against quality attacks.
But the recent series against Australia saw Rayudu fail for three games, and the musical chairs started for the umpteenth time. Rayudu was dropped for the next two games and Kohli and Pant were tried at the position in the next two games.
Now that India do not have any more games before the World Cup, the question arises: who is going to be slotted in the all-important No. 4 position?
Rayudu still seems the best option, but the team management does not seem convinced about his claim for the slot. Dropping him after just three failures did little justice to his hard work over the past 4 months.
Admittedly, Rayudu does have some technical deficiencies which cannot be overlooked. But again, it is not that he has developed those deficiencies now; he had those flaws even when the management decided to try him for the slot. And now after investing so much time in him, it will only be wise to stick with him and not overdo the experimentation.
At the same time, it would not be a surprise if they actually drop Rayudu from the first choice XI in the World Cup and try out a completely new option like Vijay Shankar. After all, Rayudu would not be the first one to get dropped even after performing well at the number four slot; Rahane, Iyer, and Karthik have all been victims of this experimentation in the last year and a half.
Shankar did prove his batting prowess with two counter-attacking knocks, one in New Zealand and one in India, both under pressure. He might actually be an option the team management will be tempted to try out given his big hitting and his ability to switch gears at any stage of the game.
But the experience at the big stage is what goes against Shankar. Moreover, his batting against swing and bounce is yet to be tested.
Karthik is seen as more of a finishing option than a middle order batsman, and Pant does not seem ready for the big stage and should not be rushed.
All one can hope is that the dropping of Rayudu was just to give others an opportunity and not because of his poor show in the series. If that is not the case, it will mean all of India's relentless experimentation will go in vain and going into the World Cup, the Indian team would carry with it a headache whose solution they could not find in two long years.