It’s July 12, 2017. Australia and India are all set to play their World Cup match in Bristol. Batting first, India lost Smriti Mandhana early but the century partnership between Punam Raut and Mithali Raj steered a fightback. At no. 4, Harmanpreet Kaur walks in. Before this game, she batted generally at no. 5 or no. 6 in the tournament except for their opening match against England. Now, this moment is significant in India’s campaign. But no one knew that then.
She scored 23 runs from 22 balls to accelerate the relatively slow innings and give it a move-on. Her dismissal along with a couple of flurry of wickets restricted India to a total which was easily chased down by Australia. But moving forward, the Indian team decided to stick to Kaur batting at no. 4.
A few days later, she turned up against New Zealand scoring a knock of 60. But when she met Australia again in the semi-final, she smashed an unbeaten 171 off 115 balls, a knock which would go down as the defining moment of her career and in many ways, in the Indian women’s cricket history. She turned up with another fifty in the final, but India fell short by nine runs.
It’s not that Kaur had never batted at no. 4 before that World Cup match against Australia. When she got the promotion, she had a number of solid knocks to showcase in that position. She made her two centuries in ODIs batting at no. 4 - a heartbreaking century against England in the 2013 World Cup and another one later that year against Bangladesh.
However, five years after that World Cup, it seems the team management had asked her to bat at no. 5. The change from no. 4 to 5 happened during the 2019 tour of New Zealand. Kaur got one chance to bat in the ODI series, in which Mithali batted at no. 4 making way for Deepti Sharma to bat at no. 3.
After that game, the strategy continued heading into the home series against South Africa and later in the away series against West Indies, with various players being tried at no. 3 and no. 4 and sometimes even in the opening slot. In both series, the vice-captain turned up with some quality performances batting in the role given to her, presenting a case to the management that her batting at no. 5 gives India a solid combination heading towards the death overs.
The plan was working well until 2020. After scoring a quickfire fifty against South Africa in the home series, Kaur got an injury in the final game. Since then, her numbers have been quite underwhelming. She had scored - 1, 19, 16, 10, 10 and 13. The last three of those were during the New Zealand series. Despite showing some great form with the bat in the seventh edition of Women’s Big Bash League, Kaur wasn’t able to get a significant score at the international arena.
And, it should be noted that she was getting out in some freakish ways. In one game, she managed to smack a high full toss straight to the mid-wicket fielder. In another match, she was stranded out of the crease after hitting the ball straight to the bowler and the momentum taking her down the pitch. The bowler, Frances Mackay, was smart enough to throw it back to the keeper. So, to make an exact judgement on her form in the series based on these dismissals was difficult.
After the game, India head coach Ramesh Powar, when asked the question about her form, said, “I will stick to my statement. It was up to Harman to get back into form. It is a player’s mind which works in pressure situations. We can create those in the nets and otherwise. It's again up to the player to come out of that zone and do well.”
Now, that is not an ultimatum. But making Deepti Sharma vice-captain of the team for the last two ODIs could be looked at as a signal that the management doesn’t believe Kaur is undroppable. However, in the final ODI, things seemed to fall back in place.
For starters, Kaur came out to bat at no. 4, when India were 89 for 2 in the 18th over chasing 252. By no extent India was in deep trouble but the going could have gotten tougher had there not been a partnership. While Smriti Mandhana was in sublime touch, Kaur took some time to settle in. But once she found her rhythm, she looked poised on the wicket with an eye on getting the chase done.
In the 24th over, she went out of the crease to smash Fran Jonas downtown for a six over long-on. That classic Harmanpreet Kaur swing was on display there. She got a big hug from Mandhana in the middle of the pitch, as if to show that the in-form Kaur was back at her best. The right-handed batter ended with a score of 63 from 66 balls, helping India to a consolation win.
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Now, the bigger question is could Kaur continue to bat at no. 4 heading into the World Cup? There are a few reasons to completely run with this idea. For starters, her numbers at no. 4 are much better than any other position. She averages 40.45 with a strike rate of 70.22, with three centuries and eight fifties. At no. 5, she has an average of 26.84 and a strike rate of 66.12 with four fifties. Now, batting at five is more difficult than batting at four in some ways, but looking at the sheer difference between the two, we can’t say make an inference that Kaur is better suited at no. 5.
On top of that, Kaur’s numbers when compared to other batters at four remain impressive. In fact, no other player has as many centuries as her at no. 4 in ODI history. She has the seventh best average ever batting in that position. To name a few players who are ahead of her on that list - Alex Blackwell, Heather Knight, Natalie Sciver, Stafanie Taylor, Mithali Raj and Ellyse Perry. When you are in a list with these players, your numbers are extraordinary. And that is the case with Kaur.
But what happens to the Indian batting order if they shift Kaur to four? India probably got away with the plan in the final ODI with Raj batting at five. Going by the numbers in the past, it is that the Indian captain is not ideally suited to batting at five. Interestingly, her own numbers at three are much better than her numbers at four. In fact, Deepti Sharma being pushed to no. 3 could also be a one-off thing. It has been done in the past, but with little or no success. Unless there is any specific match-up, Deepti will find herself out of position at three on more days than not.
India arrived in New Zealand with a set plan. That is quite easy to decode from how they picked their squad. In the first 15 for the World Cup, they haven't selected a reserve batter. Yastika Bhatia was designated to share the no. 3 or no. 4 positions with Raj. Kaur was set to bat no.5. But now things have changed a little.
Kaur’s match-winning fifty presents a tremendous case of why she should be batting at four. Her upper ceiling when it comes to batting in that role is higher than a lot of cricketers around the globe. There is no doubt she could be the ultimate match-winner for India and molding the middle order around her is possibly India’s best shot at getting bigger totals and not lagging behind in the middle overs with the bat.
At the toss of the final ODI, skipper Raj hinted they are finally playing their best XI. If Kaur batting at four makes this Indian team the best version of themselves, then that is what they should do going ahead into the World Cup. And maybe, we might see her become the first player to score four centuries at no. 4. For now, there are still a few questions which Raj and Co. has to find answers to before India face Pakistan on March 6.