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Cricket news - Is Kohli at No.4 worth the gamble?

3 or 4? What's Virat Kohli's number for India at the World Cup?

Let us begin with a certainty: The identity of India's No.4 at the World Cup is still uncertain.

Ambati Rayudu, he who averages 53.87 at two-drop in his last 12 games, might flinch at the suggestion and point to his fighting 90 in Wellington as the ultimate validation of his proficiency. But Ravi Shastri has preferred to keep the proverbial pot simmering by mentioning in a Cricbuzz interview that there is still a consideration to have Virat Kohli move a place down in order to split the 'Big 3' at the top.

Kohli himself is not averse to the idea, dead-batting a question with a 'anything for the team' response. "If that's the requirement of the team at a particular stage in the game or before a particular game, I'm more than happy to do it," Kohli said in Hyderabad, on the eve of the Australia series. "I've batted a lot of times at No 4, so I don't necessarily need to try it out because I've done that a lot of times in the past. My games doesn't change from No. 3 to No. 4 because template is quite similar. In any given situation, I back myself to play the game that I know. If the team wants it at any stage, I'm more than happy to do it."

The India captain in many eyes is among the best batsmen in the history of the 50-over format. He has 8440 runs at No.3 at a staggering average of 63 and has scored 32 of his 39 hundreds at that position. Yet there is a thought of having him sacrifice his preferred spot, predicated by a merry-go-round of personnel in the middle-order. Then there are matches like the final of the 2017 Champions Trophy or the ODI at Lord's in 2018 - those that got away from India in line with the "cut off the head and the rest will follow" theory.

The idea to split the Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Kohli is not completely ill conceived. Not only does Kohli give the middle-order much-needed identity, capable of balancing attack and defence, he also insures against aforementioned collapses. There's of course experience of having donned that role during the times of Tendulkar-Sehwag-Gambhir axis and numerical affirmation of his ability to be just as successful: In 37 innings at the position, he averages 58.13 with seven centuries.

But can India simply break off the most imposing top-3 in ODI cricket just to limit their losses in the (highly unlikely) event of the new-ball swinging? On the face of it, this move is more defensive than practical and Kohli, like his coach, has after all cherished moments when he could blow the intent trumpet and thumb his nose at expectation and the established order.

There's nothing unpredictable about what Kohli brings in at No.3. But predictable doesn't mean it's worth panning. Sometimes, nothing's more comforting than well-made formula. And Kohli, who has almost sworn by his risk-free doctrine to ODI batting, thrives best at No. 3, even if he believes his templates don't change one position down.

Kohli is predictable because he has a pattern. in ODIs since January 2017, he consistently scores at a strike-rate of 84 off the first 30 balls he faces, hitting a boundary nearly every 10th ball he faces. Once set, he accelerates gradually, with his scoring rate increasing to 103 over the next 30 balls. In the same time period, India have, on an average, lost their opening wicket in the eighth over (7.4) of the innings, meaning Kohli gets going against fast bowlers with all but two fielders up inside the circle.

On the six occasions that Kohli has come in to bat after the 20th over - when a No.4 batsman is likely to operate at - he has played his innings at a more modest strike rate of 75.48, with even the frequency of boundaries reducing to one every 16 balls. Given India's recent claim of wanting to up their scoring rate in the period between overs 25-40, Kohli could actually be forced to veer away from his batting blueprint and attack before getting set, forcing an element of risk into his watertight ODI game. And the Indian captain is far too valuable to lose to an experiment at the World Cup, a tournament they'll start as one of the favourites despite the uncertainties after Kohli in the batting order.

Table: Kohli in ODIs since Jan 2017

Kohli at four may also make sense in the modern ODI game, that requires that the best batsmen be available also for the final 20 overs of the innings, when the score is typically doubled. But the modern No.3 batsman is present for almost as much of the slog overs as is the No. 4, given the greater opportunity of the one-drop to go on to make a big score.

Since the 2015 World Cups, after which the white Kookaburra refused to do the swing bowlers' biding, No.3 batsmen have scored 60 centuries - nearly double that of the No. 4 batters (32) without losing the strike-rate battle by much - 85.15 to 85.90. On an average, the No.3s end up batting six deliveries more than the ones following them immediately after - handing credence to the old adage that the best batsmen must be available to face the maximum deliveries.

Table: No.3 and No.4 in ODIs since WC 2015

A little reflection will inform Shastri that India have found themselves in this position before previous World Cups. In 2007, Greg Chappell convinced Sachin Tendulkar to bat at No.4, a move that ended with a disastrous campaign in the Caribbean. Kohli himself batted at No.4 in the build up to the 2015 World Cup, allowing Rayudu and Ajinkya Rahane cracks at one-drop before MS Dhoni shunned the plan and reinstated Kohli at No.3 for the Adelaide opener against Pakistan. Even batsmen of the ilk of Tendulkar and Kohli, who prefer to set the tempo rather than be dictated by it, can find batting order changes to be rather rhythm disruptive.

Even if Kohli and Shastri believe that the Indian captain is proficient enough to make a seamless switch, the fact remains that a lesser batsman will have to move the other way to No.3 and will not find the transition as easy as Kohli could. This batsman will require the technique to deal with the new ball, the temperament to cope with the uncertainty over when he will come in, and the talent to dictate the course of a play when he does.

And even with the Indian management's regular talking up of the abilities of KL Rahul and Rayudu to do a job here, it would seem a little too close to opening night for them to be running casting auditions for a new role.

India want to put an end to their No.4 troubles, not to simply transfer the problem to No.3.

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