Throwing the number 6 safety net away
Rahul Dravid delivered one of the all-time great innings in Indian Test cricket while batting at No.6 against Australia in Kolkata in 2001. VVS Laxman’s 281 stole the show but Dravid’s 180, after being demoted to that particular position in the follow-on innings, was just as crucial to that historic turnaround.
Through the greater part of 2000s, India’s batting Fab Four— Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Sourav Ganguly—laid the foundations of many a Test victory. Back then, it fell upon Laxman or Ganguly to come in after the fourth wicket was dismissed and score enough runs before the not-so-strong lower middle order was exposed.
However, in this new era of Indian cricket helmed by Virat Kohli, the specialist No. 6 batsman is slowly disappearing, especially at home.
This is perhaps a reflection of India’s growth as a Test team, to have the confidence to play the extra bowler while playing only five batsmen to get the job done.
In head coach Ravi Shastri, Kohli has found an aide who is equally game with risk-taking to find a winning formula. The Kohli-Shastri selections may not have always clicked in overseas Test matches in the recent past, but at home, they have formulated a strategy to make India unbeatable; and that formula does not need a number 6 batsman.
A pattern clearly emerges if you break Kohli’s eight-year-old Test career into three distinct phases.
November 2017 to November 2019:
In this period, in the 11 Test matches India have played at home since Shastri returned as coach, India has picked a specialist batsman at No.6 only on four occasions in 14 batting innings, which is a little over 28 per cent of the times.
On each of those four instances, the batsman was either Rohit Sharma or Ajinkya Rahane. Hanuma Vihari, who has been handed most of his opportunities abroad, featured in only one Test at home, where he batted at No.7. In the remaining instances, the No.6 was Rishabh Pant, Ravichandran Ashwin, Dinesh Karthik and of late, Ravindra Jadeja.
The numbers change a little bit when it comes to away Tests, with a specialist No.6 walking in 56 percent of the time in the 27 innings played. But just the way India look to play a spin-bowling all-rounder in home Test matches, in away games the team management is on the lookout for a seam-bowling all-rounder. And this is where the emergence of Hardik Pandya has made a difference.
India’s tactical push to play Pandya as the all-rounder ultimately prompted Sharma’s elevation to the top of the order.
“I always believed he (Rohit) is too good a player not to be playing any format. It was a good call to make him open. With the amount of runs he has scored, he has settled the issue for the time being,” batting coach Vikram Rathore said after Rohit’s success in his new gig.
March 2015 to November 2017:
The Indian team’s search for a genuine all-rounder is not a new one. But go back a few years to the post-Duncan Fletcher era (incidentally, Shastri’s first stint as coach) and statistics reveal that the team also wanted a specialist at No. 6 as well. Shastri took over coaching duties for a year after Fletcher left the scene, which was followed by a year of Anil Kumble as coach. In 26 batting innings during this period, a pure batsman took guard at No.6 in 58 per cent of those occasions.
Part of the reason may be Sharma, who at this time was still trying to establish himself in the Test team as a middle-order player. Vice-captain Rahane too batted in that slot from time to time. On other occasions, wicketkeepers Wriddhiman Saha, Parthiv Patel and Dines’h Kartik all got a crack at No.6 in order to to help the team pick an extra bowling option.
“At home, spinners like Jadeja and Ashwin or even a wicketkeeper like Wriddhiman can qualify as an all-rounder,” says former wicketkeeper Deep Dasgupta. “But in overseas conditions, you will see Hanuma Vihari finding a place in the team and also doubling up as a part-time off-spinner. So, eventually it could come down to either Vihari or Jadeja in overseas Tests.
“Vihari has to be sixty percent of Jadeja the bowler, or Jadeja has to be eighty percent of Vihari the batsman for one to topple the other for the No.6 spot,” Dasgupta adds.
June 2011 - March 2015:
When Virat Kohli made his Test debut in the Caribbean at the start of this phase, he did so as a No.6 batsman.
Statistics from this period—Kohli’s initial years in Test cricket—reveal that a specialist batsman batted at No.6 on 64 per cent of the occasions at home. Apart from Kohli, India played everyone from Suresh Raina to Yuvraj Singh to even a young Sharma and Rahane in this position. All these names, despite captain MS Dhoni playing at No.6 whenever the need came by.
That was then and this is now. It is unlikely that the current Indian set-up will make any drastic tactical shifts in the future, given that an able lower middle-order can now assist the batting heavyweights. There is a concerted effort to develop Jadeja into a regular all-rounder, and Pandya too is likely to return to the mix when India resume playing Test cricket away from home.
But this also means that life for specialist batsmen on the fringes of Test selection, such as Shubhman Gill, has gotten that much harder. The likes of Gill will know that there are only five batting slots up for grabs and the competition is fierce.