When the Indian squad for the upcoming Asia Cup was announced, one key name was missing – Ishan Kishan.

Since the 2021 T20 World Cup, Kishan had played 15 T20Is for India. More importantly, in all of them, he had opened the innings. Clearly, the selectors saw him as a back-up opener for KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma. With the middle order packed out, it was a signal that the team management wanted to set clear roles for the 2022 World Cup squad.

Asia Cup 2022: Here’s a look at all the squads as Rohit Sharma-led India aim to defend their title

Now, Kishan received these opportunities because of India’s hectic international schedule. Either Rohit or Rahul, or both, were missing at times due to injury, rest and/or simultaneous international commitments. This is where the Ireland T20I series came as a turning point.

In the first T20I at Dublin, Deepak Hooda opened the innings with Kishan. In the second T20I, Sanju Samson opened the innings with Kishan, as Hooda scored a hundred after moving down to No 3. As India returned to near full-strength against England, Kishan opened the innings with Rohit in the first T20I.

Thereafter, in a surprising move, Rishabh Pant partnered up top with Rohit in the next two games. Immediately afterwards, in West Indies, Suryakumar Yadav was elevated to the opener’s role alongside the skipper for the first four T20Is, even as Kishan sat on the bench.

Did Kishan’s downturn in form contribute to this selection call? He scored at 117.14 SR in six games before the IPL began, and then at 144.31 SR in the nine games hence, with three 50-plus scores. These are not bad enough numbers warranting a cut from the Asia Cup squad, and potentially the World Cup squad.

Even so, the impact of these selection calls wasn’t seen in the amount of runs scored (or not scored), but a shift in tactical thinking.

Sample this. Before IPL 2022, Dinesh Karthik last played T20Is in February 2019. Post the last IPL season, he has featured in all 15 T20Is India has played against South Africa, Ireland, England and West Indies. In 12 innings, he has batted at either No 6 or 7. The team management has assigned him one job – finish the innings.

The DK Factor

Royal Challengers Bangalore signed up Karthik in the IPL 2022 players’ auction with a view to addressing the ABD-sized hole in their lineup and it was the trigger to set the current events in motion. He scored 284 runs in 14 matches at a stunning strike-rate of 191.33, earning ‘the finisher’ moniker: 30 off 8 balls against Sunrisers Hyderabad, or 66 off 34 balls against Delhi Capitals – Karthik made a habit of scoring big in the death overs.

Then, there was a particular jailbreak innings against Rajasthan Royals. Karthik came in with RCB at 87/5 in the 13th over, countered Yuzvendra Chahal’s spell and won the game for his side. His exploits through the season set an early discussion point for an India recall.

Tracking his international performance in 15 games for India, Karthik has scored 30 or higher in only three out of 13 innings. Additionally, his strike-rate is lower – 133.33 – than in the IPL. But let’s also take a closer look – he has faced 10-plus deliveries in only five out of those 13 innings, and in that scenario, his strike-rate nearly touches 170.

The key here is the definitive finishing role Karthik has been given. The team management simply wants to hold him back as long as possible, so that Karthik arrives in the middle with only one purpose – slam and bang.

Consider the following instances: in Cuttack against South Africa, even as India was down to 90/4 in 12.5 overs, Axar Patel came out to bat ahead of him. Karthik then smashed 30* off 21 balls to put up a respectable total.

A few weeks later, against West Indies, India was again down to 102/4 in 11.5 overs. This time Ravindra Jadeja batted ahead of Karthik, who, when his turn came, smashed 41* off 19 balls. You get the hint? The management’s modus operandi and the player’s modus operandi are in sync.

“It isn’t that DK cannot bat higher up. They simply feel that he adds more value post the 15th or 16th over. It is a matter of what’s suitable for the side. Someone has to bat those overs and with purpose. Karthik in this attacking role is ideally suited because he adds value to that batting spot,” former selector and cricketer Saba Karim told Scroll.in.

In turn, this raises a pertinent question. With Pant keeping wickets, if Karthik bats as low as No 6 or 7, then you are fielding a specialist batter quite low down the order. Does this work in today’s ever-changing T20 era?

“It does work. You are adding firepower to the middle-lower order and that role comes with the rider that you need finishing skills,” said Karim. “In T20s, only the top-order can afford to be rigid, and then the middle order needs to carry attacking momentum. With DK in there, the selectors have given the team that option.”

It is a major punt on India’s oldest T20I cricketer. Having featured in its inaugural T20I in 2004, you can count Karthik’s exploits on one hand. For a long time he didn’t feature in the side for obvious reasons (read MS Dhoni). Then, from 2017-2019, he had a consistent run in the T20I team. The Nidahas Trophy Final happened. But after 2019, he wasn’t in the scheme of things. At age 37, will he get another chance to rewrite this particular script?

DK for India since comeback (by SR)

Runs Balls SR Pos Inns Opposition Ground Start Date
41* 19 215.78 7 1 v West Indies Tarouba 29 Jul 2022
55 27 203.70 6 1 v South Africa Rajkot 17 Jun 2022
11 7 157.14 7 1 v England Southampton 7 Jul 2022
30* 21 142.85 7 1 v South Africa Cuttack 12 Jun 2022
12 9 133.33 6 1 v West Indies Lauderhill 7 Aug 2022
5* 4 125.00 5 2 v Ireland Dublin (Malahide) 26 Jun 2022
6 7 85.71 6 2 v England Nottingham 10 Jul 2022
6 8 75.00 6 1 v South Africa Visakhapatnam 14 Jun 2022
12 17 70.58 7 1 v England Birmingham 9 Jul 2022
6 9 66.66 6 1 v West Indies Lauderhill 6 Aug 2022
7 13 53.84 7 1 v West Indies Basseterre 1 Aug 2022
1* 2 50.00 6 1 v South Africa Delhi 9 Jun 2022
ESPNCricinfo Statsguru

Playing XI – The Squad Equation

Here’s a simple mathematical equation. DK’s presence inadvertently means Kishan misses out, simply because you cannot take three keeper-batters either to the UAE or to Australia. It explains why the team management decided to experiment with Hooda, Suryakumar and Pant in the opening role. With the latter duo affixed in the middle order, Hooda – for all purposes – is then your third-choice opening backup for both the Asia Cup and the T20 World Cup.

This is a weird conclusion in itself. In the 2021 T20 World Cup, India’s top-order was completely embarrassed by Pakistan and New Zealand pacers, and yet there is no change to that line-up. Rohit, Rahul and out-of-form Virat Kohli have retained their spots. So much so, Kishan – and Shreyas Iyer – who offered a semblance of change has been dropped or relegated to standby.

Instead, with Hooda and DK coming in, it is the middle-order that has been boosted. It is in keeping with India’s newfound adventurism in T20 cricket – attack, attack and attack some more, carrying the momentum throughout the innings. So, the obvious question to ask here is – what happens to the playing XI? Can DK and Pant both feature together?

“Attacking mindset isn’t just about batting. It is also about restricting or bowling out the opposition. Rohit likes to have six bowling options to play around with, which is quite noticeable in his captaincy. And in a World Cup, you do not want to go with fewer options,” said Karim.

Let’s line up a potential XI for India: Rohit, Rahul, Kohli, SKY and Pant make the batting line-up without doubt. Bhuvneshwar Kumar/Deepak Chahar, Jasprit Bumrah, a third pacer, Yuzvendra Chahal and a second spinner – that’s your bowling attack. It leaves one spot open.

If Karthik plays, then India must pick Hardik as the fifth bowling option. If Hardik plays, as he should, then Karthik sits out. And if Karthik cannot play every game, then India needs to groom someone else for the finisher’s role, which in turn renders the experimentation moot (almost).

In a way, this makes for a strong bench. Then again, bench strength has never been India’s problem. It is about optimising the T20 playing XI, and the current DK-Pandya scenario presents a quandary.

The Indian think-tank’s approach to this at the Asia Cup is one to keep an eye on as the World Cup gets closer on the horizon.

India’s squad for Asia Cup: Rohit Sharma (Captain), KL Rahul (vice-captain), Virat Kohli, Suryakumar Yadav, Deepak Hooda, Rishabh Pant (wicket-keeper), Dinesh Karthik (wicket-keeper), Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Yuzvendra Chahal, Ravi Bishnoi, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Arshdeep Singh, Avesh Khan

Standbys: Shreyas Iyer, Axar Patel and Deepak Chahar