In the aftermath of twin series’ losses in South Africa, change was anticipated. And so, when rumours abounded on Thursday afternoon for India’s team selection for the upcoming white-ball series against West Indies, it was only a matter of seeing how far the axe would fall.
Let’s be honest here. Indian cricket is at the crossroads across formats, and in a very weird manner. In Test cricket, whether playing home or away, the team management has a clear roadmap. What they don’t have are the personnel, given the middle-order rebuild required, which simultaneously is set to usher in a transition in the longer format.
In ODIs, the personnel are there. There are in-form senior players around, plus the Indian Premier League (IPL) throws up enough names every season that two Indian teams could together participate — and challenge even — in an ICC tournament. What they don’t have is a roadmap — who are the three opening batsmen, what is the middle order going to look like eventually, who is the bowling all-rounder and what is the bowling combination going to be? All of this needs to be decided with the 2023 ODI World Cup starting to be visible on the horizon.
Then, there is T20 cricket. In many ways, the problems herein are a microcosm of the ones prevalent in ODIs. Only, they are more acute given the swift nature of this shortest format. Again, there are too many names to pick from — just too many. And the lack of a proper selection and team balance thereafter is even more palpable. Further, there is a T20 World Cup fast approaching. Eight and a half months to be precise!
While the Test selection will surely raise some eyebrows later in February, it is time to ponder if the wise men have hit the reset button in white-ball cricket.
ODIs – Hint of a change, but is it enough to get the World Cup blueprint going?
Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ravichandran Ashwin — perhaps these were the two most obvious names to be axed after the South African drubbing. From the two ODIs in Paarl, it was pretty evident that Ashwin’s race in 50-over cricket is run. He might still have something to offer in T20 cricket, down to IPL performances and/or strategies formulated by skipper Rohit Sharma, but the door should now be shut on his ODI career. India simply needs to find an alternative.
Ravindra Jadeja is the obvious spin all-rounder but he is out injured. In comes Washington Sundar and he should slot in straight with Shardul Thakur in the all-rounder department. With Deepak Chahar, this is a triple-whammy of bowling all-rounders now and if Hardik Pandya doesn’t return to bowling fitness, this is the obvious area where India must invest in. Sundar/Jadeja, Thakur and Chahar – that leaves space for another two bowlers atleast.
One is obviously a leg spinner. Ravi Bishnoi’s stock continues to rise while it remains to be seen what form Kuldeep Yadav returns in. Both will find it difficult to displace Yuzvendra Chahal from the starting eleven. Mind you, there is just no way India will return to the two-leggies theory anytime soon.
This brings us to the other pacer. Chahar’s heroics with both bat and ball have put Bhuvi out of business. This decision was long pending. Kumar is no longer the bowler he once was — early breakthroughs have dried up, pace keeps dropping, he is always building form and fitness, and goes missing in crunch situations/tournaments. India simply has to move on and build around Jasprit Bumrah for the next World Cup. Resting Bumrah allows Avesh Khan much needed exposure, if he gets to play ahead of Mohammed Siraj or Prasidh Krishna.
In the batting department, Deepak Hooda’s inclusion is the headline grabber. On the one hand, it outlines why Venkatesh Iyer has been cruelly left out after only one outing. Clearly, the selectors want a batting all-rounder in there, a sixth bowling option. With the ODI World Cup at home, it might as well be a spin bowler than a medium pacer. On the other hand, will Hooda even get the chance to showcase his wares?
That’s because the batting department is packed to full strength. Rohit Sharma’s return and not resting Virat Kohli means the onus will again be on the top-order. Assuming Ruturaj Gaikwad is only a back-up opening option, that leaves five batsmen — Hooda, KL Rahul*, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant, Suryakumar Yadav — vying for three/four spots depending on the team balance.
(*Rahul will only be available from second ODI onwards.)
T20Is – The more things change, the more they stay the same
Like Bumrah, Kohli should have been rested for at least one series. He clearly needs it after all the captaincy drama, but it is hard to envisage him and the selectors talking at this point. Even so, in the better scheme of things, it would have freed up a space and allowed for proper experimentation. Instead, with Kohli available for both series, the selectors have had to compensate by leaving out Gaikwad from the T20s.
It is particularly unhelpful because there is a key differentiation between India’s ODI and T20I troubles — lack of explosiveness up top. In the shortest format, accumulation simply doesn’t work. And this is where they really need to get around a proper, attacking batting line-up, one that would match any of the IPL teams. It is for this purpose Rohit Sharma has been brought in as captain. Now, he needs to get to work.
It can be concluded herein that T20I changes need to be implemented more in mentality than personnel. The problem stays the same though. Rohit, Rahul and Kohli, and thereafter five names vying for three, maybe four, spots. Ishan Kishan and Venkatesh Iyer are in the mix here too.
With Rohit and Kohli batting as accumulators, will Rahul’s strike-rate become an issue? Will he shed the cautious approach he has shown previously in the IPL and attack from ball one? Unless the team management lays down the law to attack and simply attack, it is tough to see what changes have been really made.
In the bowling department, Axar Patel provides the left-hand spin element in place of Kuldeep Yadav. Will Rohit prefer Bishnoi ahead of Chahal atleast in T20s? Bhuvi Kumar still finds a place herein, so again the selectors have balanced their decision to drop him from ODIs. Where does this leave Avesh Khan, or even Harshal Patel? With Siraj, Chahar and Thakur present as well, that’s six pacers vying for three spots.
In today’s Covid-reality, picking a bulging squad is par-for-course. However, the selectors and the team management need to figure out a pecking order for selection. And this needs to vary going from ODIs to T20Is. India’s long-standing issue with white-ball cricket has been using a similar template in both formats. It does not work, pure and simple.
They have tried to enforce a change in mentality without changing personnel, and atleast on paper, it seems to be the same story this time around as well. Until that aspect changes for the Men in Blue, things will stay the same despite the selectors’ intent to reset plans.
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