MSK Prasad said his selection committee had picked a “well-balanced” squad for the World Cup and “covered all bases”. He was only partly right. The team, on paper, does seem stable but doesn’t seem to have strong legs. That’s because a lot is riding on India’s Plan A. So much so that if things don’t click, their campaign in England can easily get derailed. Over- dependence on a few key players and lack of credible back-up options can hamper a team in a month-and-a-half-long tournament.
While India’s fortunes will largely depend on the form of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, the two other players who will have to play out of their skins will be Shikhar Dhawan and Hardik Pandya. In case Dhawan slips into a rut, the pressure on the other top-order batsmen and a slightly brittle middle order will increase. If Pandya fails with the ball and bat in the lower order, India don’t really have options to fill up the hole.
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Considering India are likely to go with the two wrist spinners, the batting is a bit thin at the end and if Pandya fails, they will have to shore up with other options which aren’t going to help the team’s balance. The spinners’ presence also might mean India have to go with Bhuvneshwar Kumar ahead of Mohammed Shami to offer a bit more batting depth — and that could go either way considering Shami is in great form right now.
The blame for this imbalance doesn’t rest with the selectors but on of the way the team has gone about in the last year. The preparation hasn’t always been well coordinated or thought out — two odd games to Shubman Gill, a few matches to Manish Pandey when it was clear the selectors were already thinking beyond him, some to Shreyas Iyer, and couple of games to Rishabh Pant. The fault also lies in the players not turning up with memorable performances to clinch spots or in the case of Ambati Rayudu, slipping into bad form when it mattered. Thus the selectors’ decisions regarding back-up options look more like leaps of faith.
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Hardik lends balance
It is clear that the reverses in the home series against Australia have played a part in the squad selection. It exposed the middle order who couldn’t do the job when the top order didn’t string together big scores. India also ended up conceding big totals as Pandya’s absence in the Australia series affected the balance. Without the all-rounder’s batting prowess in the end overs, the pressure on the middle order had grown.
Against Australia, India batted through the middle overs with the knowledge that they might struggle to raise the run rate later. MS Dhoni, who failed in the second ODI, batted slowly in the third game, and the lower-middle order ran out of steam. A similar script followed in the final two games without Dhoni and they ended up losing. One thing became clear: if two of the top three don’t fire, this Indian team can crack. Most of the options for No. 4 are works in progress.
Rayudu’s form this year has definitely tapered off and the way he reacts to semi-crises in middle overs too probably played a part in his non-selection. He likes to counterattack his way out of trouble but that tactic doesn’t always work. Other No.4 options, barring Vijay Shankar, have the same problem. Shankar’s seam bowling too worked in his favour. “After the Champions Trophy, we have tried quite a few middle-order batsmen, which also includes Dinesh Karthik. We also tried Iyer and Pandey. We did give a few more chances to Rayudu. But what Shankar offers is three-dimensional. If conditions are overcast, he might bowl a bit, and he’s a fantastic fielder. That’s the thing that went in favour of him. We are looking at him at No. 4,” Prasad said. He added in the same breath, “with Karthik in and also Kedar Jadhav in, we have plenty of options at that No. 4 right now.”
The other debate was about Karthik and Pant. Prasad first gave a puzzling rationale: “We felt that either Pant or DK will come into the playing eleven, if Mahi (Dhoni) is injured. So at that juncture, if it is a crucial match, wicketkeeping also matters. that’s the only reason we went with Karthik. Otherwise, Pant was almost there.” That triggers an important question: If wicketkeeping was so important, why is Pant behind the stumps in Tests?
Though Prasad came up with a better reasoning after being prompted by a journalist. Asked whether Pant not finishing for India and IPL games played a part, Prasad said, “That is exactly what we discussed. I’m saying one of the wicketkeepers will make it only if MS is injured. Under pressure, we have seen Karthik finishing matches.”
It remains to be seen how the team management weighs the options given to them, but according to Prasad, “Shankar would be no. 4 to begin with.” If things don’t go as planned, Kohli will be at 4, with KL Rahul coming in at No. 3. “To begin with, he [Rahul] will only be a reserve opener, if need arises it all depends on the team management’s call,” Prasad said. This is a team that heavily depends on its Plan A and time will tell how the back-up options stand up in the heat of battle.
The chosen ones
CLASS OF 2015
* Virat Kohli (captain)
* Rohit Sharma (vice-captain)
* Shikhar Dhawan
* MS Dhoni (wicket-keeper)
* Bhuvneshwar Kumar
* Ravindra Jadeja
* Mohammed Shami
* Lokesh Rahul
* Vijay Shankar
* Kedar Jadhav
* Yuzvendra Chahal
* Kuldeep Yadav
* Jasprit Bumrah
* Hardik Pandya
* Dinesh Karthik