When the India squads for the series against South Africa were announced on Saturday – the first official communication from the Board of Control for Cricket in India about the return of the women’s team after close to a year – it was bound to be of interest. The schedule, the delayed nature of it all, the venue which kept changing: there were a few things that needed clarification.
But, as it turned out, the biggest talking point was about the very nature of the squads. The several notable absentees stuck out more than the six new names added to the mix. Regulars like Shikha Pandey, Ekta Bisht, Anuja Patil, Veda Krishnamurthy, and Taniya Bhatia missed out in both the ODI and T20I squads. At the same time, the gamble to give six youngsters – Prathyusha Challaru, Monika Patel, Simran Dil Bahadur, Yastika Bhatia, Ayushi Soni and Swetha Verma – their first national call-up was a brave decision.
This was the first international assignment for the new selection committee but questions raised and lack of explanation for them, meant we sense of frustration was old and familiar. The subsequent quotes by unnamed sources from the BCCI did little to make matters clear. Given that there has been no BCCI-organised women’s cricket in over a year except the Women’s T20 Challenge during the Indian Premier League, the basis for selection would have been performances from the last season and not exactly form and fitness. This makes some of the choices even more intriguing.
Here’s a look at some of the big questions raised by the squad selection
Will dropping Shikha Pandey help build a pace pool?
The biggest bone of contention in the entire selection was the glaring absence of pacer Shikha Pandey. The veteran has virtually been the backbone of the Indian pace attack with Jhulan Goswami in ODIs and the sole spearhead in T20Is after the retirement of the latter.
The 31-year-old has played as the lone seamer when India went in with a four-pronged spin attack at last year’s T20 World Cup and was the second-highest wicket taker for the side. She would have been expected to play a similar perfect foil role in the delayed ODI World Cup next year, even with Goswami looking set to play. In fact, she is India’s leading wicket-taker in ODIs since her debut in 2014.
So why then was a successful and seemingly fit pacer sidelined?
On Sunday, Sportstar quoted a BCCI insider saying that the idea was to test the bench strength. With the ODI World Cup in New Zealand scheduled for next year, building a pool of pacers is a great idea. But this squad does not really reflect that.
In the current ODI squad, the pace department has the 38-year-old Goswami, 27-year-old Mansi Joshi and 21-year-old newcomer Monica Patel. The T20I squad has 23-year-old Arundhati Reddy instead of Goswami. Pooja Vastrakar, a pace-bowling all-rounder who can be handy with the bat, was also dropped which lends even lesser credibility to this logic.
India’s bowling strength is undoubtedly spin but having a seamer with the caliber and experience is no less a weapon and Pandey’s absence leaves a hole in the side.
Should Shafali Verma get a chance in ODIs?
That teen sensation Shafali Verma is one of the most impactful batters in the Indian team and a star to watch out for, is already proven on her Australia sojourn last year. Why then is her influence to be limited to 20 overs?
On the one hand, it makes sense to not try her out in 50 overs as yet and give her space to play her natural game. Her strike rate in 20 overs can be an advantage but her slam-bang style may not translate well across 50 overs without a few games to experiment. At the same time, she has proven the goods in the shorter format and a leap of faith to see if she has temperament to build her reputation in the longer format would not be far-fetched. For all one can guess, her fearless approach at the top of the order can help fellow opener Smriti Mandhana take a little less pressure and add a new dimension to India’s batting lineup that has a few holes.
If the logic to drop other established named was to test bench strength, then a home series would be the ideal time to hand Verma her ODI debut and see how she does batting in the longer format.
What is key for the wicketkeeper?
Another notable omission from both squads is that of wicketkeeper Taniya Bhatia. Experienced Sushma Verma is named in both squads with newcomer Swetha Verma as back-up in ODIs and returning Nuzhat Parween in T20Is.
Arguably, Bhatia has been dropped due to her form with the bat, which begs the question: what is the key qualification for a wicketkeeper? The 23-year-old has been impressive with the gloves since her debut in 2018 and has been instrumental in India’s surge in the shortest format while keeping to a diverse spin attack. However, she has struggled with the bat and the constant shifts of position from the top of the order to the tail have not helped.
Bhatia replaced Sushma Verma who was dropped from the ODI team for a similar reason and Parween hasn’t played the format since 2016 while Swetha Verma brings in a new angle. In the interest of expanding the bench, now is the best time to experiment with the position. But it will be hard for Bhatia to be sidelined like this despite a good show the last time she played.
Who are the new names who could get games?
The infusion of six fresh faces indicates that few of them at least will be getting match-time to settle at the international level. Some of them have got the exposure on the scant India A program as well as Emerging Players competitions. Interestingly, none of them were part of the playing XI at last year’s Women’s T20 Challenge and the uncapped Indians who did play do not find themselves in the squad.
Yastika Bhatia is a left-hand opening batter and could be tried as a back-up opener along with Mandhana, but that raises the question of a left-handed opening combination. Her regular partners, Puman Raut and Priya Punia have juggled the position with Jemimah Rodrigues also getting the chance.
In T20Is, 20-year-old Ayushi Soni already has caught the eye of captain Harmanpreet Kaur and together with fellow all-rounder Simran Dil Bahadur could be potential debutants. Swetha Verma is the back-up wicketkeeper in ODIs and her chance to play will depend on Sushma Verma’s performances.
While pacer Monica Patel and legspin-bowling all-rounder C Prathyusha are in both squads, replacing Pandey and Ekta Bisht, their match time might also depend on the performances of the other bowlers.
Of course, the point remains that, some of these questions might not have needed answering if there was a more open communication channel from the governing body and the followers of the game, via interaction with the selection committee.