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Cricket: 5 problems Team India need to solve before the World Cup

Indian cricket has had a mixed start to 2023. Here are five questions that India's selectors need to get right before the World Cup

Suryakumar Yadav in action for India. (AFP)

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The 3-0 whitewash of Sri Lanka in the ODI series that ended on Sunday held many positives for India. But it should not whitewash blemishes exposed earlier in India’s first-ever ODI series loss to Bangladesh. We should also keep in mind that Asia Cup champions Sri Lanka were without their main pace bowlers due to injuries; and the island nation does not have India’s depth of talent to find like-for-like replacements. 

India still have questions to answer before the World Cup on players’ form and team composition. Here are five questions the team management and selectors will need to address in the upcoming series against New Zealand and Australia.

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Kuldeep Yadav or Yuzvendra Chahal?

India were in trouble at 86-4 in the second ODI after Sri Lanka set a paltry target of 216. K.L. Rahul shepherded the team home with Hardik Pandya and Axar Patel, but it might have been a different story if the target had been higher and the batsmen were under pressure to score faster. In fact, Lanka looked set for a 300+ score when they were 102/1 in the 17th over. Left-arm leg-spinner Kuldeep Yadav changed the course of the game with a triple strike. It underlined the importance of having wicket-taking spinners in the middle overs of ODIs and T20s.

Yadav was left out of the second Test against Bangladesh after a player-of-the match comeback performance in the first Test with eight wickets. And he didn’t figure in the starting eleven for the first ODI against Sri Lanka. It was only a shoulder injury to right-arm leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal that gave Yadav a chance to play in the next two ODIs. 

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Yadav’s confidence and form have grown since moving to Delhi Capitals in the IPL last year. Now it’s up to the Indian team management to decide which leg-spinner draws greater conviction for the World Cup. International batsmen don’t often encounter a left-arm leg-spinner, and Yadav has shown he can be a gamechanger. 

Axar Patel or Ravindra Jadeja?

Axar Patel was a misfit for the T20 World Cup in Australian conditions last year, but is again showing that his quick left-arm spin is potent on abrasive Indian pitches. The elevation of his batting and his catching at point put him almost on par with Ravindra Jadeja as an all-rounder. 

News that Jadeja will return to action in the Ranji Trophy to prove his fitness for the Australia series will present a choice between these two left-arm spinners. Jadeja has had a long layoff for a knee surgery. Should India keep their faith with the man in form, Patel, or give Jadeja an extended run in the hope that he will regain his form in time for the World Cup? 

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If Patel is benched to accommodate Jadeja, it could disrupt the former’s rhythm. Last year’s failures in the Asia Cup and World Cup showed the folly of playing musical chairs ahead of big tournaments. The team management needs to be decisive with their first choice of a playing 11 for the World Cup early enough for the players to feel settled.

If not Hardik Pandya, then who?

Hardik Pandya has been sensational with his bowling, batting, and captaincy from IPL 2022 onwards, after a poor run in 2021 on his comeback from injury. He gives tremendous depth to India and there’s no question he’s the first choice all-rounder in the team.

But everyone is always on tenterhooks when he’s on the field because of the serious back injury he has had to overcome. Hanging like a Damocles’ sword over the team is the spectre of Pandya getting sidelined with injury again, which would throw the team composition into disarray. So there needs to be clarity on a contingency plan.

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India does not have a medium pace all-rounder as good as Pandya. But India can opt for an additional spin bowling all-rounder, because a spin trio can be effective in Indian conditions. Jadeja, Axar Patel, and off-spinner Washington Sundar can all work as spinners who can also be late order hitters. Two of them can play alongside either Yadav or Chahal and three pace bowlers. That would keep the spin-bowling all-rounders tuned for the World Cup, in the event of a Pandya breakdown.

Umran Malik or Arshdeep Singh?

India need clarity on their specialist pace trio, as Jasprit Bumrah’s return has been delayed further. Umran Malik, clocking over 150 kmph, has the x-factor that rattles batsmen.He could team up with Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Shami to give India a formidable pace trio. Malik is inexperienced and proves expensive from time to time because his fast deliveries fly off the bat. But a bowler with raw pace is a rare asset, and all-rounder Hardik Pandya provides insurance.

The temptation is to go for a left-arm pacer who can be steady and bowl yorkers at the death, which means Arshdeep Singh. He’s an intelligent bowler, but if you ask any batsman who they would rather face, Singh at below 140 kmph or Malik at over 150 kmph, the answer seems obvious. The fear factor in facing a truly fast pacer is a psychological edge that India never had in the past. So it was good to see Malik in the first two ODIs against Lanka. 

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The question is whether the team management’s faith will be steadfast after a bad game or two. Malik needs all the exposure he can get to develop game intelligence and variation in his bowling. It’s a pity that India does not have somebody like Bangladesh fast-bowling coach Allan Donald to guide Malik. India’s counterpart Paras Mhambrey has his work cut out.

Safe bets or risk-takers?

That the world’s numero uno of T20 cricket by a long stretch, Suryakumar Yadav, finds himself in the reserves in ODIs, because it's a different format, is one of those familiar incongruities in Indian cricket. Too many options lead to suboptimal selections.

Shreyas Iyer is good against spin in the middle order, but his continued vulnerability to fast bowling targeted at the body keeps getting exposed. Yet India seem to prefer his calming influence to Suryakumar’s flamboyance. 

Ditto with the opening slot: Shubman Gill in preference over Ishan Kishan, who can’t find a place in the playing eleven despite scoring the fastest double century in the history of ODI cricket in Bangladesh, overtaking Chris Gayle. Gill scored a nice century against Sri Lanka, and Virat Kohli is back to his old ways of notching up centuries. But both the top order batsmen like to go at a run a ball for their first 50 or so runs. In fact, four out of five specialist batsmen for India like to play in anchor mode till they’re well-set. 

Kishan and Suryakumar belong to the new ilk that believes in more risk-taking from the get-go. India may need one or two such characters in the batting lineup, to put bowlers under more pressure throughout the innings and not just in the second half, especially against top teams like England. Rahul Dravid’s inclination as a player was to be conservative. As a coach, he may have to recalibrate his risk-reward equation to back risk-takers. With Rishabh Pant ruled out after his accident, there’s more reason to get in one or two more hitmen.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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