Updated: May 9, 2017 8:51:50 pm
Four years ago, on a cold, overcast morning in a leafy corner of Cardiff, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma walked out as a pair for the first time to face South Africa’s bowlers in the Champions Trophy. Dhawan was beginning afresh in limited overs, having made a brief appearance in Team India’s colours two years previously. Rohit, meanwhile, was six years into his stop-start, largely underachieving international career, where he had mostly batted in the middle and lower-middle order. (Gallery)
India’s opening, post-Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, was in a state of flux. The rest, as the saying goes, is history — and its final chapter hasn’t been written yet. For, the openers will return to England next month as India hopes to retain the Champions Trophy that they had won in 2013 on the back of some superlative top-order performances.
While Rohit’s selection wasn’t in doubt post his recovery from a thigh injury, Dhawan’s career hung in the balance given his indifferent form across formats over the last one year. He was dropped from the Test and T20 teams, and was benched in the third and final ODIs against England earlier this year.
However, a shoulder injury to KL Rahul and a consistent performance with bat for the Sunrisers Hyderabad in the ongoing IPL brought Dhawan right back into the mix. “As of now, we have picked Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma as openers and Ajinkya Rahane is the back-up opener,” chief selector MSK Prasad told media after the meeting.
Dhawan’s spot in the squad could have come under threat from the fellow left-hander from Delhi Rishabh Pant, who has opened for India at the under-19 level. The explosive young batsman has had a breakout season, and his whirlwind 97 off 43 balls against Gujarat Lions recently bolstered his case. However, Prasad, while heaping praise on the 19-year-old, cited “squad combination” as the reason why Pant was not picked.
“We are completely impressed by how Rishabh Pant is playing. It’s just combination because of which he missed out. He is one cricketer we are looking at for our future. He is definitely a solution for our future. There is no need to worry as he has a long career ahead of him. We will groom him and back him. We will ensure that he is successful in future,” the chairman explained.
Another reason why Pant has missed out is the conditions in England, which are different from those where the 19-year-old has scored his runs. “We respect IPL but in the longer format, we have to also consider the English conditions that we are playing in. Not just the IPL, but one needs to take into account the performance of last one year also in such a big tournament,” said Prasad.
A fine glovesman, Pant could also have provided back-up to Mahendra Singh Dhoni, whose batting form is missing the old zing. When asked about the former captain, Prasad didn’t deny Dhoni’s recent struggle for runs, but suggested that he can walk into the team purely on his wicketkeeping skills.
“Not many people realise that in the last 10-12 years, Dhoni has never had a bad day with the gloves. We always treat him as a batsman, but the phenomenal stuff he does behind the wickets, not many people appreciate that. According to me, he is still the best wicketkeeper in world cricket…He is an invaluable asset to the team and his inputs in crunch situations, he has got one of the best brains. He is the best person to guide Virat,” Prasad said.
Aside of Pant, another young player whose name was debated by the three-man committee was the young chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav. However, with R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in the team, and Yuvraj Singh and Kedar Jadhav providing part-time spin options, the selectors decided against choosing a third spinner and opted for an extra batsman.
“We definitely considered the name of Kuldeep. He would have been a surprise package, but whether we would have played with two spinners is a question. Since Yuvraj (Singh) and Kedar (Jadhav) can bowl spin, he narrowly missed out,” said Prasad.
Overall, the selection committee opted for the tried and tested players. In fact, even ‘tired and tested’ wouldn’t be too far off the mark, given the workload some of the players — like Virat Kohli, Umesh Yadav, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja — have shouldered over the last six months.
Ashwin, recuperating from a sports hernia, skipped the IPL entirely, others also sat out a few games for tend to the injuries they had picked up during the long home season. Just how much their minds and bodies have recovered remains to be seen. If their performances in the ongoing IPL are any indicator, Kohli and Jadeja appear jaded. Prasad, however, insisted that they both have been duly rested.
“Virat didn’t play the last Test and also the first few matches in IPL. The more he plays, it is better for him. We have also given Jadeja a break. (But) considering how fit he is, it wasn’t a problem,” Prasad said.
The reliance on experience was best manifested in the fact that eight players from the 15-member squad that won in England four years ago were retained. Of the remaining seven, one man, Yuvraj Singh, had made his debut in this competition 17 years ago when it was still called the ICC Knock Out tournament.
Among the six Champions Trophy greenhorns, three, Mohammad Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya man the five-strong fast-bowling department — “strong”, for the first time, in the real sense of the word.
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