India’s selectors should be commended for fast-tracking Umran Malik into the 18-member squad for the T20 series against South Africa starting next week. The 22-year-old fast bowler from Kashmir was a sensation in the Indian Premier League (IPL), with a performance that included ripping off a 157 kmph delivery. He was only pipped at the post for the fastest ball of the season award by Lockie Ferguson of New Zealand, who sent down a 157.3 kmph delivery in the final for Gujarat Titans.
Malik is raw and proved expensive at times, lacking the nuances of variation and accuracy at this early stage of his career. But he’s the fastest bowler in the land, and there aren’t that many internationally who can match his speed either. Even accomplished batsmen found his searing pace disconcerting, and he won the emerging player award in IPL 2022 by taking 22 wickets in 14 matches. His best performance of 5/25 came against eventual title winner Gujarat Titans, including the wickets of Shubman Gill, Hardik Pandya, and David Miller.
Now it remains to be seen if he will be a net bowler in the Indian team or unleashed straightaway against South Africa. The latter would mean that he is being prepared for the T20 World Cup on the hard, bouncy tracks of Australia later this year. With Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami being rested for the series, a number of contenders for the third and fourth seamer slots in the Indian team will get a chance to stake a claim.
A rich seam of bowlers
Bhuvneshwar Kumar retains his place in the side after bowling economically in the IPL, with his ability to swing the new ball both ways. But he got only 12 wickets in 14 games, and his pace remains below 140 kmph after returning from surgery.
Then there’s the tall, pacy Avesh Khan who maintained his wicket-taking nous with 18 strikes in 13 games. But he was expensive as well, going at nearly 9 an over. Harshal Patel has been retained for his intelligent variations that earned him 19 scalps. A new entrant is left-armer Arshdeep Singh who returned the most economical figures in the death overs with unerring yorkers.
But the selectors missed out on the find of the season, Mohsin Khan, who had an amazing economy rate below 6, which is way better than that of any other bowler picked for the Indian team. The tall left-armer could crank up his pace to 150 kmph and took 14 wickets in the nine games he played, which is again much better than the 10 wickets Arshdeep got in 14 games. Mohsin Khan bowled with rare intelligence, varying his pace and length, and should have been a shoo-in for a team preparing for the World Cup.
It’s good to see the return of the KulCha duo of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. The left-right leg-spin combination bamboozled South Africa during India’s tour of 2018. But neither of them figured in the last T20 World Cup, where India went with leg-spinner Rahul Chahar and mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy, both of whom failed miserably.
Chahal got the Purple Cap as the highest wicket-taker this season, with 27 wickets from 17 games, and Yadav wasn’t far behind with 21 wickets from 14 games. The wicket-taking ability of both wrist-spinners may be a vital asset on the big Australian grounds in the World Cup. The smart move would be to let KulCha bowl in tandem again, earlier the better.
The squad also includes googly specialist Ravi Bishnoi, who had a relatively poor IPL, being a tad predictable. There’s also left-arm finger-spinner Axar Patel, a replacement for the injured Ravindra Jadeja.
All-rounders on top
That brings us to the all-rounders, and here India got a huge boost from the IPL. Hardik Pandya was a shadow of his former self last year after returning from lower back surgery, and got dropped by both Mumbai Indians and India. Gujarat Titans took a chance by appointing him captain, and that paid off big time as he led the new franchise to the trophy. Pandya was the player of the match in the final, taking three wickets for 17 runs and then scoring 34. That he could bowl at over 140 kmph proved his fitness. And he fulfilled his new role as a specialist batsman at No.4 with aplomb, averaging 44 through the season, showing that he can be more than just a late order hitter.
Most of all, his captaincy was as good as anything we’ve seen in the IPL. The way he controlled the dangerous Jos Buttler, by bringing on leg-spinner Rashid Khan every time Buttler looked like breaking free, was brilliant. It contributed to Buttler eventually getting out to a loose shot off Pandya. Gujarat Titans lost only four games out of 16 in the tournament, despite having only two truly specialist batsmen, Shubman Gill and David Miller.
Pandya’s leadership marks him out as an alternative to KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant for vice-captaincy of the Indian team. Both Rahul and Pant faltered at the crunch, just as they had done in the last IPL season too. Rahul batted for 19 overs at a strike rate of 135 when the asking rate was 165 in the playoff with Royal Challengers Bangalore. His conservative approach, despite being a top-notch strokemaker, ended Lucknow Super Giants’ campaign. And Pant let his team down by not taking a vital review in Delhi Capitals’ last league game. Pandya in contrast was cool under pressure and tactically unerring in his very first season as a captain.
Apart from Pandya, Dinesh Karthik stormed back into the Indian team as a finisher with a strike rate of 183 in the IPL season. This was a remarkable feat for a 37-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman, who last played for India in the 2019 ODI World Cup, and had poor IPL seasons in the subsequent two years. If Karthik clicks, and Pandya remains fit, it may be curtains for Venkatesh Iyer, who was being groomed for the all-rounder finisher role after his exploits in IPL 2021.
Iyer failed badly this year, averaging 16.5 with a strike rate of just over a run a ball and bowling only four overs in which he gave away 46 runs and took no wickets. Bowlers aren’t pitching anything up to him anymore, and he’s not so adept at scoring off a hard length.
It’s surprising that the selectors did not pick a batsman instead, because it’s hard to imagine Iyer bowling in the World Cup in Australia. Rahul Tripathi is unlucky to miss out after averaging 37.5 at a humming strike rate of 158. Sanju Samson got left out because of his penchant for playing cameos rather than big knocks, but his strike rate of 147 at an average of 28.6 is nothing to be scoffed at.
The biggest question mark for the Indian team is the continuing poor form of Virat Kohli, who had his worst IPL season this year, averaging 22.7 at a strike rate of 116. He has been rested for the SA series and his place in the side is presumably assured. But at some point the selectors may have to put the team’s World Cup prospects above that of giving Kohli another chance.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.