Ahead of the selection meeting for India’s upcoming tour of the West Indies, there’s a more pressing problem to deal with than MS Dhoni’s future. Till early evening on Saturday, the national selectors had no information on whether Dhoni would be recusing himself from the tour, although they were confident of getting a communication before the selection meeting in Mumbai on Sunday.
Grapevine has it that the veteran wicketkeeper-batsman has communicated to the BCCI that he will take a brief sabbatical to serve the Parachute Regiment of the Territorial Army, of which he is an honorary lieutenant-colonel. The post-selection press conference on Sunday should clear up the confusion.
However, a brittle middle order that eventually became India’s bugbear in the World Cup will be the matter that will keep the selectors busy. The defeat to New Zealand in the semifinal, where the first three wickets fell for five runs, wasn’t a case in isolation.
Two years ago, in the Champions Trophy final, India couldn’t recover after Mohammad Amir ran through the top order. Between the two tournaments, 12 players were tried at No. 4 in a manic experiment. It yielded nothing. India have a ready replacement for Dhoni in Rishabh Pant. Sanju Samson, too, is waiting in the wings. But when the MSK Prasad-led selection committee meets to pick the squads for the West Indies tour, initiating a middle-order course correction would be its biggest challenge.
India’s original World Cup squad had five middle-order batsmen – KL Rahul, Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav, Vijay Shankar and Dinesh Karthik – along with a pinch-hitter in Hardik Pandya and a bowling all-rounder in Ravindra Jadeja. After Shikhar Dhawan was ruled out of the tournament, Pant came in as a replacement, while Rahul moved up the order to open the innings. Shankar became the team management’s preferred choice at No. 4 in the batting order rejig and when a toe fracture ended his World Cup, Pant became the team’s No. 4.
The World Cup report card says Shankar made 58 runs in the three matches he played, Jadhav had 80 from five, Pant 116 runs in four and Karthik 14 runs from two innings at a strike rate of 41.17. Dhoni, comparatively, had a decent performance, with 273 runs from eight innings, although he struggled to force the pace when the ball wasn’t in his hitting range. Pandya scored 226 runs from nine innings but he was never a holding option in the middle order. “In hindsight, yes, we did need a solid batsman out there in the middle order,” the head coach Ravi Shastri told this paper after the Cup exit.
Former national selector and BCCI secretary Sanjay Jagdale told The Indian Express: “Don’t forget, before the World Cup we had lost the home ODI series against Australia also. Virat Kohli scored two centuries in that series and yet we couldn’t win, which confirmed India’s lack of batting depth. Middle-order batting suffered because the selectors backed the wrong players.”
India will play three ODIs and as many T20 Internationals in the Caribbean apart from two Tests that are part of the World Test Championship.
Quite a few options
And if Prasad and company start course-correcting, they have quite a few options. Manish Pandey is the in-form batsman for India A at the moment in the ongoing one-day series against West Indies A. Just a few days ago, he scored an 87-ball 100 at North Sound. Pandey had announced his arrival with a match-winning 104 not out against Australia in Sydney three-and-a-half years ago. Between January 2016 and September 2018, he, however, was given just 19 more matches – that too, not at a stretch – in the 50-over format and at different batting positions.
Both Shreyas Iyer and Shubman Gill are batting well for India A in the Caribbean. Iyer made his ODI debut in December 2017 and played just six matches before being dropped, even though he scored two fifties. Gill made his ODI debut in New Zealand earlier this year but wasn’t included in the list of World Cup stand-bys and was also overlooked as a replacement when the selectors decided to pick Mayank Agarwal, an opener, for the injured Shankar.
By the way, there’s still no update on the status of Dhawan and Shankar, as far as their recovery from injury is concerned.
Then, there’s the curious case of Ajinkya Rahane, whom Virat Kohli had spoken about as India’s possible No. 4 for the World Cup during the ODI series in South Africa in February 2018. Rahane, surprisingly, was binned after that series.
During a recent interview with this paper, former chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar had elaborated on how India missed Rahane’s experience at the World Cup. “I had said this before, you need to have someone like Ajinkya Rahane or (Cheteshwar) Pujara, who have done very well in England and have explored the conditions. Keep experienced player as back-up. For back-up, India had (Rishabh) Pant, Dinesh Karthik and Kedar Jadhav. If you have such kind of selection, the result is there for everyone to see,” the ex-India captain had said.
Jagdale was even more vocal. “I would like to have Ajinkya Rahane at No. 4. You can’t have players (in a World Cup) squad who couldn’t secure their spots in the Indian team despite playing since 2003. They are not your future also.”
Rahane is still pretty young at 31, and the day the Indian World Cup squad was picked, a member of the current selection committee admitted that it might not be all over for the Mumbai batsman, with regards to white-ball internationals. Now that they have had a rude awakening, it would be interesting to see if the selectors want to fall back on Rahane’s class.
Also, the future of Karthik and Jadhav is an issue they need to address. Both are 34 years of age and unlikely to last till the next World Cup. Sunday’s meeting will give fans an idea about the regeneration timeline; whether it will start with immediate effect, or the selectors will wait till the home series against South Africa in September. By then, India will also have a permanent head coach.
Saha a contender
If two wicketkeepers are picked for the Test series in the Caribbean, Wriddhiman Saha has a decent chance to make the squad. The Bengal stumper was out of action for over nine months last season after suffering a shoulder injury that needed surgery. Pant came in as his replacement and revelled in the opportunity, with centuries in England and Australia. He rose to become the team’s first-choice ‘keeper.