There's a startling piece of stat that encapsulates the current Indian ODI side's struggles to find a stable No.4 batsman. Since the 2015 World Cup, the team management has tried out 12 different players in that slot. Even as openers Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, and captain Virat Kohli at No.3, have scored the bulk of the team's runs, the void in the middle order has caused a lot of concern in the run-up to the World Cup beginning on May 30.
While opinions are pided on this issue, Ricky Ponting, the former Australia captain and the current head coach of the new-look Delhi Capitals franchise, waded into the issue on Tuesday. "If I was the Indian selector, I would play Rishabh Pant at the No.4 position, purely as a batsman. He has that X-factor about him and is the sort of guy who can help India win the World Cup," Ponting, who was in Delhi along with Sourav Ganguly, the franchise's newly-appointed advisor, opined.
This may be the coach talking up one of his match-winners ahead of the IPL season, but are not totally surprising. Ponting had watched Pant during India's four-match Test series Down Under, and following his knock of 159 in Sydney had famously quipped: "He is the most exciting talent since Adam Gilchrist."
Despite such high praise, Pant's recent performances in limited-overs cricket inspire little confidence. Take the final ODI against Australia at the Feroz Shah Kotla for instance. In pursuit of 273, the 21-year-old was sent in at No.4 to ace a tricky chase. But he flattered to deceive, scoring a run-a-ball 16, before falling prey to Nathan Lyon's guile.
A rare talent
Like Ponting, Ganguly too came to Pant's defence, terming him a 'rare talent', and a player who can serve Indian cricket over the next decade. "For me, Rishabh Pant is the future. He is a hard worker and will be a huge asset for the country in the years to come," the former India skipper said.
Ganguly also believed Pant is a candidate for the No.4 position, even as he played down the youngster's indifferent displays in the recent past. "Don't judge him by those performances. For any player to be successful, you have to give him a sustained run in a format. The presence of (MS) Dhoni meant that his chances were few and far between."
Ganguly cited Pant's performances in last year's IPL and his exploits for India in England and Australia. "He played all 14 matches and finished as the second-highest run-getter for his franchise. Similarly, the selectors persisted with him for the two demanding Test series in England and Australia. Name another Indian wicketkeeper who has centuries in both these places? Mind you, those knocks were no fluke. It came on the back of some sensational batting," he said.
For a long time in the lead-up to the World Cup, it looked like Ambati Rayudu had made the No. 4 spot his own. One need not look beyond his 81-ball 100 against West Indies in Mumbai last year, when his stroke-making even put Rohit Sharma in the shade. But a string of indifferent scores and the team management's practice of experimentation meant the Hyderabadi would go down in the pecking order.
Under the current circumstances, Dhoni may also emerge as a pragmatic choice to fill the No.4 slot. However, the 37-year-old's hitting prowess is not what it was a few years ago. Of late, he has increasingly turned into a nurdler, happy to play second fiddle to the big hitters batting around him.
The abundance of options at the selectors' disposal means KL Rahul is another contender but he has got few opportunities in this position to stake a realistic claim.
Tamil Nadu all-rounder Vijay Shankar has also looked the part on occasions. Backed by a cool, common-sense approach, he has shown the ability to cream sixes as well as rotate strike. In the recent ODI series against Australia, Shankar gave glimpses of his ability to bat under demanding situations with little fuss.