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Why India is still searching for the perfect team before the World Cup

The World Cup is just weeks away. However, as the Asia Cup performances show, India is still searching for the ideal lineup

Ishan Kishan in action at the Asia Cup.
Ishan Kishan in action at the Asia Cup. (BCCI Twitter)

It was a familiar sight: the left-arm swing of Pakistan’s Shaheen Shah Afridi dismantling the Indian top order. He took out Rohit Sharma and K.L. Rahul in his first two overs of the 2021 T20 World Cup in Dubai. This time at the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka on Saturday, it took a bit longer. But then he found the right length and clattered the stumps of Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli.

One way to disrupt the line and rhythm of a top flight opening bowler like Afridi is a left-right combination. India’s string of right-handers till No. 5 in the batting order does not pose that challenge. India had a comfortable opening stand of 147 against Nepal in the next game, but they will need a rethink against tougher opposition before the ODI World Cup starts next month.

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The batting conundrum

The exciting young talent, Yashasvi Jaiswal, is strangely out of the ODI radar despite his sterling performances in this year’s IPL and the Caribbean Test and T20 series right before the Asia Cup. That leaves Ishan Kishan as the only top-order left-hander in the ODI team. Kishan’s 82 in 81 balls at No.5 against Pakistan at the Asia Cup, and a few good knocks in the ODI series in the West Indies earlier, suggest that he could be the one.

India did send him out to open against New Zealand in the 2021 T20 World Cup after the loss to Pakistan, with Rohit Sharma dropping down to No.3. But he picked out the deep square leg fielder with a pick-up shot in Trent Boult’s first over, and India collapsed again. Seeing his current form and the maturity of his run-a-ball knock against Pakistan, it may be worth giving him another shot at opening.

If not as an opener, Kishan could at least go in at No.3, with the experienced Virat Kohli dropping down to No.4. Shreyas Iyer looked classy at No.4 against Pakistan as long as the ball was pitched up to him, until a bouncer got him again. He struck the pull shot well, but straight into the hands of the short mid-wicket fielder.

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Two other contenders for the vexed No.4 position—or No.5 if either Rohit Sharma or Virat Kohli moves down to accommodate Kishan in the top order—are Rahul and Suryakumar Yadav. Rahul is in the Asia Cup side despite being unfit to play from the start of the tournament. That indicates the team management’s keenness to have him in the playing XI.

He was the main contender for the wicketkeeper-batsman slot vacated by the injured Rishabh Pant. But after the Kishan show with bat and gloves so far, he may have to compete with Iyer and Yadav for a specialist batsman role. Like Iyer, his long layoff with injury after the IPL leaves little time to test him out for the World Cup.

This makes it all the more surprising that a potential match-winner like Yadav is warming the benches. Even if he is yet to transmute his T20 batting to ODIs in the limited and sporadic opportunities he’s got, his sheer game-changing ability should have prompted the team management to prioritise getting him ready for the World Cup. It still isn’t too late to do so.

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Apart from selection and batting order, the team leadership’s decision to bat first against Pakistan in overcast conditions was questionable. Did they read the conditions wrong? Or did they want to test the batting against a good bowling attack in difficult conditions, knowing that they would qualify anyway for the Super 4 with Nepal being the third team in their Asia Cup group?

If they read it wrong, that’s a worry because pre-match decisions like that will be a big factor in the World Cup. If they did it deliberately, it’s understandable with the batting being so unsettled on the eve of the big tournament. But the old adage of getting into a winning mode is worth keeping in mind too.

Shardul Thakur is India's great pace hope.
Shardul Thakur is India's great pace hope. (ANI )

Setting the pace

The pace bowling combination is another crucial piece of the puzzle for India before the World Cup. From the selection of the playing XI for the first two matches of the Asia Cup, it appears that Plan A is to have Hardik Pandya and Shardul Thakur as pace bowling all-rounders. The two remaining slots will then be a toss-up between Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, and Mohammed Siraj, with Prasidh Krishna as an injury standby.

The desire to lengthen the batting order comes from India’s frequent batting collapses, as in their loss of the T20 series in the West Indies last month. But with two solid all-rounders in Pandya and left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja, three specialist fast bowlers may be a better choice in forming a World Cup-winning team. Former Pakistan captain Imran Khan showed in the 1992 World Cup the value of the saying, “Batsmen may win you matches but bowlers will win you tournaments.”

Thakur has a bag of tricks with his variations that has earned him the reputation of being the bowler with a ‘golden arm’ who breaks partnerships. But his experimentation comes at a steep price in the runs he gives away. And his contributions with the bat are too inconsistent to justify playing him as an all-rounder.

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The return of Bumrah and the tall speedster, Prasidh Krishna, before the World Cup is good news. Along with Shami and Siraj, they can be a potent attack. But not if only two of them will be in the playing XI.

The spin bowling department looks the most settled, thanks to left-arm leg-spinner Kuldeep Yadav’s emphatic comeback. With Jadeja as his spin partner, and Axar Patel being a like-for-like replacement for Jadeja, it appears to be a great combination. The perennial question is the inclusion of the world’s top off-spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin, especially in the light of Patel’s decline in wicket-taking of late.

Shreyas Iyer misses a catch.
Shreyas Iyer misses a catch. (AP)

Too many unknowns

Less than a month before the World Cup, the number of unresolved questions for India is troubling. But that’s also a product of India’s huge talent pool leaving selectors spoilt for choice. Little wonder that selection of the squad and playing XI is the single most important element that has determined India’s fortunes in ICC tournaments.

After the selection comes the batting and bowling orders and fielding positions. Coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit Sharma have a lot of scope for incremental improvements to give India the winning edge. The three dropped catches at the start of the Nepal innings on Monday at the Asia Cup focused attention on fielding positions.

Was Iyer the best choice of first slip fielder? His dropped catch from a straightforward chance in Siraj’s first over did not matter against Nepal, but lapses like that will cost India dearly against well-matched opposition. India rank lower than all major teams in the percentage of catches taken over the last four years.

Even if the statistical margin is not much between the top team, England, scoring 82% and India’s 75% catch efficiency since the 2019 ODI World Cup, it can make the difference between winning and losing close encounters. Can India tick all boxes for a winning team in time for the World Cup? The Asia Cup Super 4 starting on Wednesday will give us more clues to how the team is progressing towards that goal.

Sumit Chakraberty is a Bengaluru-based writer.

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