Social media was abuzz on the day India’s team for the 2017 Champions Trophy was picked. On the face of it, there wasn’t really any cause for surprise selections. The selectors had followed a well thought-out plan in One-Day International cricket for the past year or so, and their final choice of 15 players, reflected as much.
Obviously then, none of the young names doing well in the Indian Premier League’s tenth season featured in that list. This aspect fuelled a raging online debate, and in turn, raised a couple pointed questions. Was it prudent to leave out the adventurous youngsters for a tried and tested formula? And, when do they cross that hallowed line, wherein you just cannot ignore them anymore and have to offer international experience to aid their development?
The answer to that first question is a resounding yes. International Cricket Council tournaments are not experimental grounds for blooding youngsters to the rigours and demands of international cricket. End of debate!
Time to give the frontliners a break
However, if this upcoming trip to England hadn’t been an ICC-stamped tourney, rather a limited-overs’ sojourn of the random variety (like the one in West Indies immediately after), there is a room for consideration. After all, India’s first-choice picks have been on duty non-stop for almost a year now. Sample this. Until that missed Test in Dharamsala, Virat Kohli played 16 Tests, eight ODIs and three Twenty20 Internationals without a break between July 2016 and March 2017. That is 91 days of international cricket – along with incessant travel time, net sessions, and everything else – crammed into approximately eight months.
Kohli is the fittest Indian cricketer going around, and even he broke down, albeit due to an external injury. Imagine the impact of this rigorous schedule on the fast bowlers, say, someone like Umesh Yadav who shouldered the responsibility across formats in the absence of Mohammed Shami. Or, someone like Ajinkya Rahane, no less fit than Kohli, but went through the entire season barring the T20I series against England.
India tried their best at workload management, and despite such progressive plans, there were frequent injuries during this long international season, putting a strain on the bench strength.
Why must India’s frontline cricketers continue to shoulder this extra workload when it comes to inconsequential bilateral matches? Again, the upcoming West Indies tour – immediately after the Champions Trophy – is a pertinent example. Sure, you want your first-choice (even second-choice) team to take the field in the five-match ODI series. But, what of that standalone T20I on July 9 in Jamaica?
An opportunity to blood youngsters
This is where the other aspect comes in. The three-match T20I series against England in January could have been a proper experimental ground for blooding in some young faces, ones who did well in the 2016 IPL, or even in the recent domestic season, whilst providing rest to the seniors. It could have allowed selectors additional breathing space ahead of picking the Champions Trophy squad.
Unlike Test and ODI cricket, Twenty20s require relatively less adjustment. Hardik Pandya is a case in point, ushered into the shortest format last year in January against Australia ahead of the World T20. But when it came down to playing the longer formats, he was sent out on India A tours with coach Rahul Dravid to develop his skills a tad more. The ease with which he has gradually fit into the ODI side thereafter is a highlight of this meticulous approach.
As such, the one upcoming game in the West Indies (or any other future T20I series) is another such opportunity, particularly as there are no Zimbabwe tours coming forth any time soon.
So, would you like an IPL XI take the field for India in a T20I game? It is time to play selector:
Gautam Gambhir is the obvious candidate herein, a senior with vast experience who will command respect from the dressing room whilst giving the youngsters enough inspiration to shine on the big stage. Kohli will be rested, obviously, and one will come to MS Dhoni in just a bit.
An explosive top-order
The onus is on providing rest to the seniors as well as giving opportunities based on IPL performances alone. The latter aspect becomes important because in the last World Twenty20, India used the same batting line-up as it does in ODIs. Giving new names a go allows for a bigger pool to accompany Kohli, Manish Pandey and Rohit Sharma when the next World T20 rolls around in 2020.
Sanju Samson (386 runs in 14 matches) and Rahul Tripathi (391 runs in 14 matches) are the obvious opening candidates. Nitish Rana (333 runs in 12 matches) and Rishabh Pant (366 runs in 14 matches) bring up the middle order, with Krunal Pandya (243 runs and 10 wickets in 13 matches) handling the all-rounder responsibility. Gambhir is the focal point of this batting line-up, of course. Shreyas Iyer (338 runs in 12 matches) too gets a look in, albeit as one of the reserves. There is also a case for Robin Uthappa (388 runs in 14 matches), in light of his consistent IPL performances.
An array of new-age spinners dominate the bowling
For the last World T20, India called up Ashish Nehra to bolster the pace attack with his experience and guile. Clearly, he is going to be too old for the next tournament, and thus Jaydev Unadkat (24 wickets in 12 matches) becomes an able replacement candidate. He may not have similar pace as Nehra, but his bag of tricks in the recently concluded IPL awed many.
Given India’s relative weakness in the bowling, especially when playing overseas, they will need a bigger pool of players in this department to cover all bases. Yuzvendra Chahal (14 wickets in 13 matches), Shahbaz Nadeem (6 wickets in 7 matches) and Kuldeep Yadav (12 wickets in 12 matches) round up the spin department. Bhuvneshwar Kumar (26 wickets in 14 matches) leads the pacers (you cannot leave out the IPL 2017 Purple Cap winner, plus he provides some experience to the bowling).Shardul Thakur (11 wickets in 12 matches) and Basil Thampi (11 wickets in 12 matches) are the other impressive performers.
Time to unleash Pant force
This is the all-important question facing Indian cricket at the moment. It was also the most rousing debate ahead of the Champions Trophy selection. What about Dhoni?
Chief selector MSK Prasad highlighted his importance – “invaluable to the team” – in the post-selection press conference, and clearly the selectors will leave it to the former skipper to decide his future plans in ODI cricket.
But, let it be said here, Dhoni’s time in T20Is is at an end. In both his batting and keeping, Pant showed enough chutzpah during the recent IPL, highlighting that he is the obvious candidate to replace Dhoni in limited-overs’ cricket.
It cannot happen immediately though; Dhoni should be allowed the respect of calling time on his illustrious career and thus the ODI spot is still available to him should he want to play the 2019 World Cup.
However, Pant’s growth as a cricketer cannot be short-changed at the same time. Simply put, he is the most magnificent talent to burst out from domestic cricket in a long, long time, probably after Kohli himself, and is clearly a future international star. He needs to be allowed time and space to deliver on this promise, and now.
Wriddhiman Saha is India’s first-choice Test wicketkeeper, and rightly so. Dhoni is the ODI designate. This leaves only international T20 cricket for Pant, and automatically shuts out the former skipper as a natural progression.
It’s time India focuses on developing T20 specialists
Selecting Pant, and dropping Dhoni, in this bold manner will also send out a distinct message.There is a lack of definitive adventurism when it comes to the shortest format of the game, especially considering that India last won the World T20 in 2007, a decade ago. But for that inaugural win in South Africa a decade ago, India’s T20 team is quickly starting to go the Australian way – brilliant individual T20 players, who have no clue as a team, and their T20I performances illustrate as much.
In short, there is a desperate necessity, if not an urgency, to develop some T20 specialist talent so that Indian cricket doesn’t have to recall Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Nehra every time an important tournament is approaching.
As things stand then, this is the team – picked purely on IPL performances –that ought to take the field against West Indies in that stand-alone T20I, or any T20I in the near future for the matter:
(In batting order): Sanju Samson, Rahul Tripathi, Gautam Gambhir(c), Robin Uthappa, Rishabh Pant (wk), Krunal Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Shahbaz Nadeem, Jaydev Unadkat, Yuzvendra Chahal, Basil Thampi.
Additional players in the squad of 15: Shreyas Iyer, Nitish Rana, Kuldeep Yadav, and Shardul Thakur.
No Kohli, no Sharma, no Dhawan, no Rahane, no Dhoni, no Ashwin, no Jadeja, no Bumrah. It is an opportunity to rest/drop them, and bed in these youngsters.