It is five and a half months to the World Cup. That might seem a long time in cricket. It is four and a half months to when the teams have to be announced. That might seem a long time away too. And yet it isn’t. As I write this, with summer having gone as dramatically as India’s batting form, there are four games to play in England and five in India before that team gets picked. The five in India won’t tell us anything.
It is reasonable to say, therefore, that these games are critical in deciding who goes to Australia to defend that title. But look at it differently. There is no genuine test after these games (and this is not meant to be disrespectful to the West Indies just the fact that the conditions are so completely different) and so you are looking, really, at one person here and another there. What Rahul Dravid said is true, this team must start winning a few games.
And so it might be a good time to look at what a squad to the World Cup could be if picked now. I am hoping it will be a squad of 16 because it is a long tournament; you need to play 8 games to get to the final.
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The biggest change from 2011 is that you need to play five full bowlers in Australia. In India, you could get by with four and use batsmen who bowl a bit of spin to complete the quota. And so India had Suresh Raina and Yusuf Pathan but it was Yuvraj Singh’s bowling style, so suited to the conditions, that gave Dhoni the option of playing seven batsmen. If India had a Yuvraj equivalent who bowled seam up, you could have explored the seven batsmen situation again. And that probably means you have to err on the side of picking an extra bowler. And hope that at least two of your bowlers can bat well enough to win you a close game.
I believe, given India’s major problem with end overs bowling, you will need to take five seamers of whom three will play. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma are probably two of those and hopefully Umesh Yadav will bowl well enough in England to encourage the selectors that he should be the third. Look at who else is available. On this tour, Mohit Sharma, Mohd Shami and Dhawal Kulkarni, and back in India, Varun Aaron. While Bhuvneshwar can contribute a bit, none of them really bat which minimises Dhoni’s options. That is why Stuart Binny is in this side, as a batting all-rounder. And that is why India will have to look at Rishi Dhawan too, especially after him and Akshar Patel played with a lot of spirit in the ‘A’ team quadrangular final in Australia.
For Binny to make it, he has to come in as one of eight batsmen and bat at number six because he cannot realistically, give his captain ten overs everytime. He then becomes the batsman who covers for a bowler having a bad day. That is not the case with Dhawan which is what makes his case a little tougher. If either Ashwin or Jadeja could have batted at number six, it would have provided a lot of flexibility but that moment probably hasn’t yet come.
Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan will have to get into form because there isn’t another opener knocking the door down. It would have been very tempting to go with Robin Uthappa in that role because he could have helped out as a reserve keeper too but he was a bit short of runs on the ‘A’ tour to Australia. And so I believe Ajinkya Rahane will be a strong contender for that floating batsman’s role. That makes it three to which you have to add Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina. The selectors have gone with Ambati Rayudu as the back up and competition there is probably from Kedar Jadhav and Manoj Tiwary unless a youngster somewhere comes out of the blue. Add Dhoni and you have seven batsmen. Who is the eighth?
Question of No.6
Whoever you pick has to be good enough to bat in the top six and that is the question with Stuart Binny India must get an answer to in this series in England. You could argue that if he could bat as a number seven batsman in test cricket, he could go in at six in a 50 over game. Alternately the selectors could believe that the all-rounder is going to be a spinner (if Karn Sharma is the third spinner, he can bat too) and back five bowlers to do it all themselves with Raina as back up (which in Australia isn’t a lot). In that case India could look at Sanju Samson as back up ( or Dinesh Karthik or Naman Ojha) in case Dhoni needs to miss a game. But for that we must be sure he can bat in the top six at this level. I think we need to test that at some point too.
Having said that the pressure to put out the best eleven each time will minimise the possibility of testing players and so the selectors may well have to pick 2-3 players without having seen a lot of them. Or having seen them in non-representative situations.
My gut feel is that if a team had to be picked now, it would be: Dhawan, Rohit, Rahane, Kohli, Raina, Rayudu, Dhoni, Binny, Jadeja, Ashwin, Karn Sharma, Bhuvneshwar, Ishant, Yadav, Mohit and Aaron. And if you had to put in a few more into the shortlist, maybe Samson, Tiwary/Jadhav, Rishi Dhawan and Mohd.Shami/Kulkarni. But I don’t think you are looking too much outside this pool.