With the 2019 Cricket World Cup drawing closer, The Field has been taking a look at significant talking points over the past year as to how India’s squad shaped up after specific milestones. With only five one-day internationals left before Virat Kohli’s quest for a ICC trophy as a captain resumes, in the fifth part of the series, the focus is on the emergence of some outside bets to make the trip to United Kingdom.
Before the start of India’s limited-overs’ engagement in Australia-New Zealand, chief selector MSK Prasad outlined they were only a short way away from finalising India’s 2019 World Cup squad.
“We are left with only 13 ODIs and coming closer to the World Cup, it is more or less the core team. We have zeroed in on 20 members and only those 20 members will be figuring from now on,” Prasad had said in Melbourne, before the turn of this year.
Just over five weeks later, as the Men in Blue notched up 2-1 and 4-1 series’ wins in Australia and New Zealand, coach Ravi Shastri sat down with this writer for a freewheeling conversation and underlined further progress when he said they are ‘looking at only 1-2 spots to fill in’.
Going back to August 2017, when this preparatory road to the World Cup began on the tour of Sri Lanka, India already had seven names already confirmed on this squad sheet: Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, MS Dhoni, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah.
As India won against Lanka, and against Australia and New Zealand at home, and embarrassed South Africa 5-1 in their den, two more names were added: Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav. After the wrist spinners wreaked havoc wherever they went, Shastri explained how this was only an affirmation of their plan hatched after the loss to Pakistan in the 2017 Champions Trophy. “The selectors were always on our page,” he had said – his words highlighting how R Ashwin is completely out of reckoning for the World Cup.
After the England tour, the team management stepped up efforts to plug in vacant holes in this playing eleven – read number four. Enter Ambati Rayudu – he scored runs across the Asia Cup (in UAE) and against West Indies (at home). Scoring in the sub-continent wasn’t enough though, and only after India’s win in New Zealand did Rayudu gain affirmation from every quarter.
Equally important though, two other developments happened in the bowling department. First, Mohammed Shami made his presence felt as a bowler transformed. Long story short, carrying his momentum from Tests to the ODI arena, he eased India’s third-choice pacer spot and booked his World Cup ticket.
Secondly, in this chop-and-change for an optimal third pacer, India realised what their best bowling combination is – two pacers, two spinners, an all-rounder and a part-timer. Thanks to Rayudu’s ban from bowling in international cricket, Kedar Jadhav was the real winner here. He simply had to play; add to it, his propensity to pick up wickets (an astounding bowling average of 31.56) routinely as opposition batsmen continue attacking the ‘part-timer’, and three more spots were filled in that World Cup squad.
In summation, that’s 12 names on the squad-sheet, leaving three spots in the 15-man World Cup party. It is a slight stretch on Shastri’s claim of one or two spots, and for good reason.
So what more do India need?
The Batting Department
From the aforementioned names, India do have a first-choice playing eleven as we saw in Australia and New Zealand. They have seven front-line batsmen herein, but you do need more in a World Cup squad.
Ideally, any team needs an extra batsman who can fulfill dual top and middle order roles. KL Rahul would have been perfect in this scenario, but he cannot buy a run at the moment. Ajinkya Rahane is the other obvious name – but he hasn’t played ODI cricket in 12 months while number four experimentation continued in his absence.
This situation is further complicated because you need a second keeper-batsman for any World Cup outside India, perhaps even more than that extra batsman. This is where Dinesh Karthik comes in. On paper, he can do everything – open, bat in the top three or lower at number four/five/six, plus keep wickets. In fact, Karthik was the second-choice keeper-batsman in the 2017 Champions Trophy squad too, albeit he didn’t play a game.
India have trialed Karthik’s versatility only to a limited extent, however. Since 2017, he has batted at number four (average 52.80 in nine matches), five (average 38 in four matches), and six (average 37 in two matches). That run at number four came in before Rayudu entered the fray, and it begs the question why he wasn’t persisted with. Perhaps, it is because his average is inflated by seven ‘not outs’ in 15 innings during that time span, or indeed the general consensus being Karthik is more comfortable when slam-bang is need of the hour, like in Adelaide and Melbourne.
Even so, when India searched for optimal bowling balance with Rayudu at number four, Karthik found himself out of the playing eleven, as seen in Napier and Bay Oval. At this juncture, the Rishabh Pant question comes in – if Karthik is not your number four, is only used in specific scenarios, and hasn’t really batted in the top-order for a while now, is he India’s primary second-choice keeper-batsman?
Alternately, the Indian team management has struggled to fit two keepers in the same playing eleven, whether it is Dhoni-Karthik, or Dhoni-Pant. In Kohli’s absence, they rushed Pant into the T20 top-order – and he impressed with aggressive cameos at Auckland and Hamilton. This could be a precursor to an extensive run against Australia in the upcoming five ODIs as the selectors might rest top-order batsmen.
So, if they are both doing the same aggressive role in a limited capacity, who would you rather take to the World Cup – Karthik or Pant? Scratch that, and instead ask, if India can really afford to leave Pant out of the World Cup squad altogether?
The Bowling Department
In a World Cup to be hosted in England, it is only logical that bowling combination decides the overall balance of India’s squad. If Karthik and Pant are jousting for one spot, perhaps along with Rahul and Rahane, then there are two spots to consider herein. Let us consider this backwards.
If the Champions Trophy squad is any indication, then four pacers and two spinners is the norm. Additionally, stand-in skipper Rohit Sharma underlined in Wellington that he considers Jadhav ‘a full-time spinner’. Meanwhile, Ravindra Jadeja is left out in the cold.
And by that count, India have only one position to cover there – the fourth pacer. The pace experimentation comes into consideration herein – Khaleel Ahmed is in prime position to book himself a ticket. Among eight pacers used in the last two years, he has played the most games apart from Kumar, Bumrah and Shami.
The team management likes him too – Ahmed is a left-arm fast bowler, and can move the ball both ways in helpful conditions. His pace can be a let down at times, but it isn’t too bad for a fourth-choice pacer in the squad. Yet, this last phrase is the important pointer herein.
Fourth in the pecking order means Ahmed won’t really come into play ahead of other three senior pacers, unless there is a last moment injury, or if you want to rest someone for an inconsequential game in the latter half of the World Cup (assuming India have already qualified for the semi-finals). As such, does the team management really want to take a bowler just because he is a left-armer? Or, would they rather reconsider the experienced Umesh Yadav, who is proving a point in domestic cricket after sitting out nearly the entire Australian tour?
The likes of Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Siraj and Siddarth Kaul are sidelined at the moment, but coach Shastri pointed out that India would wait until the last possible moment to consider these remaining spots. In other words, form in the first couple weeks of 2019 Indian Premier League will matter a lot.
It shines the spotlight on that last – 15th – spot. Is there an element of surprise herein? Perhaps, for there is an obvious liking in the Indian dressing room about what Vijay Shankar brings to the side. It was first seen in Wellington, in bowler-friendly conditions, as India fielded a previously untried two pacers, two all-rounders, one spinner and a part-timer combination.
“We want to try everything before the World Cup to see how it works,” said the stand-in skipper as Shankar worked his magic with both bat and ball. Word from the Indian team management is they are really considering taking him to England.
There are two scenarios working, herein. First, India play two games at Manchester and Birmingham, and one each at Nottingham and Leeds, while the semi-finals are also at Manchester and Birmingham. English conditions are a pot of luck, and can change in the blink of an eye.
Thus, it is not inconceivable that India will consider replicating the Wellington formula during the World Cup – remember India started off the Champions Trophy against Pakistan in Birmingham with a bowling combination of three pacers, an all-rounder, a spinner and a part-timer. Additionally, it stresses why they only want to take two full-time spinners.
The second scenario herein is if Shankar goes in place of the fourth pacer. It would open up a spot, perhaps for an additional batsman, or even Jadeja as a spin all-round option. This clearly explains the repeated opportunities Shankar is lately getting, whether in ODIs or T20s.
While he has been justifying his selection – like on Sunday night, batting at number three in Hamilton again and providing momentum to the innings after Dhawan’s dismissal – it is fairly surprising that, in February 2019, Shankar holds the key to India’s remaining available World Cup spots.