The final over win against Pakistan at the Asia Cup in Dubai on Sunday wasn’t as emphatic as India’s loss to their arch rivals in the T20 World Cup at the same venue last year. But it spared the blushes of a second successive defeat, brought joy to countless fans, and bolstered the team’s confidence.
India also ticked off several boxes in their preparation for the upcoming T20 World Cup in Australia—the array and variety of bowling, the form and composure of their two main all-rounders, and the captaincy and leadership of Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid. At the same time, some knotty questions remained unanswered despite the win.
The team leadership and most TV commentators have steadfastly downplayed the elephant in the room: should India bet on Virat Kohli regaining his touch in time for the World Cup or give his crucial No. 3 slot to a man in form? Kohli was the joint top-scorer with 35 in a modest run chase of 148 in Sunday’s game. It was an important contribution and he did play a few good shots reminiscent of his old self. But his 35 came at a run a ball and pushed up the asking rate.
Overall he looked as scratchy as he has done right through the year in the Indian Premier League (IPL) and international cricket. On Sunday, he was dropped at second slip before he opened his account and top-edged a bouncer over the wicket-keeper for a six. He failed to get going against the spinners, after the powerplay, and then perished in trying to do so, which has become a familiar sight in the IPL.
India potentially will have two more encounters against Pakistan at the Asia Cup in the Super 4 stage and the final. These would constitute a litmus test for Kohli to play an innings of substance at a match-winning scoring rate. The other teams in the Asia Cup are not in the same class, so performances against them should not carry the same weight.
If Kohli continues to be susceptible to the Pakistan bowlers, it will be hard to justify his selection for the World Cup, denying a place in the playing 11 to somebody like Deepak Hooda, who has grabbed almost every opportunity he has got this year. And whoever takes Kohli’s place will need time to settle into the role before the World Cup, and the window for that has almost closed.
The second conundrum for the team management is a self-imposed one. They have decided the team needs a “finisher” who specialises in tonking the bowlers in the death overs. Dinesh Karthik focused on training for exactly such a role during his hiatus after the 2019 ODI (One Day International) World Cup. He played enough cameos with a super-high strike rate in this year’s IPL to catch the Indian selectors’ eye.
Fitting him into the playing 11 wasn’t a problem when several established players were rested in bilateral series. But with all the seniors back in the team, and India being in a dress rehearsal mode for the World Cup in October, the think tank had to rack their brains to fit in Karthik.
KL Rahul apparently needs time to get back into his groove after a long layoff to deal with injury and sickness, as does the out-of-form Kohli. Suryakumar Yadav is settling into his role in the middle order, and the two all-rounders, Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja, are vital to India’s gameplan of playing six potent bowlers. So that left wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant as the sole candidate for the axe to make way for Karthik who can also be a keeper.
With the left-handed Jadeja taking Pant’s No. 4 position and succeeding, Karthik’s No. 7 “finisher” position appears settled. All well and good, except that India’s World Cup opponents will heave a collective sigh of relief if they don’t have to bowl to Pant.
The left-hander has belied expectations in T20s for India after raising them sky-high with his exploits in Tests and ODIs. However, he has been an outstanding performer in the IPL, much more so than Karthik, and certainly has the potential to be a match-winner for India in T20s too.
“He is one of the most phenomenal players, a modern top player. The way he bats, he is the future of Indian cricket. He is the future for you, isn’t he?” a bemused Wasim Akram asked fellow commentator Gautam Gambhir, who was equally nonplussed on hearing that Pant had been dropped to accommodate Karthik.
What makes the move more perplexing is that Pant is a proven player in Australian conditions, where the World Cup will be played. He made a century in Sydney on his first tour Down Under in 2019. Then, last year, his second innings knocks under pressure in Sydney and Brisbane enabled a second string Indian team to win the Test series.
Even though most of his match-winning exploits have come in Test cricket, Pant’s attacking mindset makes him a natural for the shorter formats and he first came into the limelight in the IPL. His unbeaten 125 in an ODI series decider in England last month, chasing down the target after a top order collapse, shows what the young star can do in white ball cricket when he strikes the right balance between attack and defence.
A match-winner like that, who can turn a game around from any position, is gold dust for any team. If the Indian team leaders are so desperate to include Karthik in the playing 11, they surely need to find someone else to sacrifice. Perhaps the out-of-form Kohli or even K.L. Rahul, who couldn’t find his feet in the three games in which he batted after getting back from a long layoff. If one of them in the top order is left out, and Yadav bumped up the order to No. 3, it opens slots for both Pant at No. 4 and Karthik at No. 7.
But the fixation on Karthik is worth a rethink too. He did have a stunning IPL this year, helping his team Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) reach the playoffs. But in his 16 T20 games for India since then, he has produced just two knocks of substance: 55 in 27 balls against South Africa in Rajkot, and 41 not out in 19 balls against the West Indies in Tarouba. That’s too thin a record for him to displace Pant in the team, even after taking into consideration the challenges of batting at No. 7.
On the positive side, India’s bowling resources appear well-stocked, with a variety of good options in both pace and spin. One question does pop up, however. Why is Mohammad Shami not in the reckoning for the T20 team?
The pacy seamer’s wicket-taking ability with the new ball and yorkers in the death overs contributed significantly to Gujarat Titans winning the IPL title this year. His experience of bowling in Australia could have been handy for the Indian team.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.