“After the Champions Trophy, we tried quite a few people [at No.4]. We gave a few more chances to Rayudu. What Vijay Shankar brings is three dimensional. We are looking at him at no. 4 to begin with.”
As India’s World Cup squad was announced, chief selector MSK Prasad’s statement about Vijay Shankar stood out for two reasons. It meant that the team management and the selectors were confident enough that the batting all-rounder was good enough to do a job that Ambati Rayudu wasn’t up for.
It also meant that despite how vital the number four slot can be in a place like England, where the new ball might move around for that little bit longer than in most other places, India have opted for an untested allrounder instead of a pure batsman for the position.
Of course, all of this might mean nothing. This could be just MSK Prasad saying things that Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri will turn a deaf ear to once the World Cup actually begins.
But in case the Indian team actually goes with the vision of the selectors, then India just might find themselves a pure batsman short.
Sudden rise to the spotlight
There is no doubt that Shankar can bat — he has all the shots in the book and looks equally comfortable against pace and spin. But is he capable of getting a big score in case the top order fails? Is he capable of getting a match-changing century?
He has gone from making his One-Day International debut to making the World Cup squad as a batsman in the first XI in less than four months. In that time he has played nine ODIS and has an average of 33.00 in those matches. He has a top score of 46 in those matches — a fine innings against Australia, nonetheless, in which he even outplayed Virat Kohli. His bowling has come along alright — but he hasn’t bowled enough for one to be able to judge how he’ll perform under pressure in a World Cup no less.
Yes, these are the days of the floating batting order and we might see even Mahendra Singh Dhoni bat in the slot in a few matches but have the selectors missed a trick by not naming a pure batsman instead?
Just four ODIs back, India’s worst-case scenario had come to light. In the fifth ODI against New Zealand, Rohit Sharma (2) and Shikhar Dhawan (6) were dismissed early. Shubman Gill (7) and Dhoni (1) followed them to the dressing room soon. India were 18 for 4 in no time and that is when Rayudu crafted a splendid 90 to help India reach 252 at the end of their 50 overs. India ended up winning the match by 35 runs.
That match was played on February 3. Between then and April 15, Rayudu played another three ODIs against Australia and the IPL. Somewhere in that period, Kohli and the selectors lost confidence in him.
This is not to say that Rayudu absolutely had to be picked. But given the number of games he played in recent times, he looked like a favourite to, at least, make it to the squad. The question now, however, is whether Vijay Shankar is India’s best middle order bet.
Kohli has been obsessing over the balance of the squad in recent times. Just as the tour of New Zealand was beginning, he had mentioned how some of the best teams in the world have two allrounders. With Shankar and Hardik Pandya, he will have the options too. If Kedar Jadhav, Pandya and Shankar play, Kohli will have seven bowlers to choose from. Is that more than required? Should India have picked a proper batsman instead?
“[Mohammed] Shami is our backup seamer, Karthik is our backup keeper, [KL] Rahul is our backup opener, [Ravindra] Jadeja is our backup spinner,” said MSK Prasad on Star Sports.
Shami, Rahul and Jadeja pick themselves in the 15-member squad. But there was a huge discussion over whether India should got with the experience of Karthik or the explosive potential of Rishabh Pant. In the end, they chose Karthik because they apparently trusted his keeping more than Pant’s.
They also added a caveat that Karthik will only play if Dhoni is injured.
If that was indeed the case, then would it have more sense to take Pant along since he is also India’s Test keeper? The ICC allows teams to call-up players to the squad in case of injury and India are already planning to take four ‘net’ bowlers along.
Karthik’s batting form in the Indian Premier League hasn’t been great either. In eight matches, he has scored 111 runs at an average of 18.50 with a strike-rate of 118.08. Pant, on the other hand, has scored 245 runs at an average of 35.00 with a strike-rate of 161.18.
If the argument in Karthik’s favour was his keeping then it might be worth highlighting that Pant had replaced Karthik during the Test series in England after the latter had a couple of poor matches behind the stumps and with the bat. Still, something about Karthik inspires more confidence at that moment. It just might be that he is older, has played more matches than Pant and has a more mature head on his shoulders. Prasad said the Tamil Nadu ‘keeper was an option at two-down as well.
In a long tournament like the World Cup, sometimes the back-ups end up playing a very important role. India has a solid experienced squad for the World Cup but the the gap at number four and the omission of Pant stand out for now. Whether it will come back to hurt India, only time will tell.
But for now Pant and Rayudu will be wondering where things went wrong. They might find that no one has clear answers for them.