The selection of the 17-member squad for the Asia Cup, where India start their campaign against Pakistan on 2 September at Pallekele, Sri Lanka, is a rehearsal for the World Cup starting the following month. Not surprisingly, most of the selection was along expected lines, but a couple of choices reveal biases.
Neither Tilak Varma nor Yashasvi Jaiswal got a chance in the ODIs during the recently concluded West Indies tour. Varma later made his debut in the T20s and helped India win the 3rd T20 at Tarouba on 8 August with 49 not out in 37 balls (although the real match-winner was Suryakumar Yadav with a blistering 83 in 44 balls). The debutant got a fifty in the previous game, but it was at a low strike rate in a losing cause.
Jaiswal got his India cap in the preceding Test series against the West Indies, in July, scored 171 on debut and followed that up with a fifty in the second Test. He was overlooked for the ODIs, and then brought into the T20 series midway. He made a match-winning unbeaten 84 in 51 balls in the 4th T20 at Lauderhill, Florida, on 12 August.
Now we see Varma in the Asia Cup squad. There’s no sign of Jaiswal, although his performance on the Caribbean tour was surely more impressive in a straight comparison between the two left-handed youngsters. Even in the IPL, Jaiswal was among the top five run-scorers with a tally of 625 for Rajasthan Royals at a strike rate of 164, compared to the 343 runs Varma scored for Mumbai Indians.
No doubt, Varma is a leading contender in the young brigade of Indian cricket. But it’s hard to see how he gets into the ODI side ahead of Jaiswal. Perhaps the selectors saw Jaiswal purely as an opener and wanted fresh talent only in the middle order.
But another way of thinking would be for skipper Rohit Sharma or former skipper Virat Kohli to move down to stabilize the No. 4 position. After all, the skipper said, "One thing I want in this team is to make sure everyone is okay to bat anywhere."
Why not start with the senior-most players giving up their accustomed slots? That would open up a top order position for an opener or No. 3. A cricketer with the free-flowing talent of Jaiswal can take risks and make the most of field restrictions in the powerplay overs.
Sub-optimal selection has been a major factor in India falling short at World Cup events for twelve long years. The new chairman of selectors, Ajit Agarkar, will need to emulate the free-thinking Krishnamachari Srikkanth who led the selection panel for the 2011 World Cup winning team.
Apart from Varma, the other debatable selection is that of Shardul Thakur. He did take eight wickets in the three ODIs on the Caribbean tour, but Thakur proves very expensive from time to time. The average runs he conceded per over in the last two IPL seasons is around ten. Can India afford such profligacy in the World Cup?
The selectors overlooked the promise of Mukesh Kumar who made his debut on the Caribbean tour and bowled economically with pace, accuracy, and variations in the death overs. This has been an Achilles’ heel for India, with the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Arshdeep Singh losing limited overs games with one terribly bad over at the end. Not surprisingly, neither one of those two now figures in the Asia Cup squad.
A telling move is the selection of left-arm leg-spinner Kuldeep Yadav, who has been a resurgent wicket-taker since his comeback againt Bangladesh last December. That the right-arm leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal finds no place is a clear indication of the selectors’ preference for the World Cup. The two left-arm finger spinners, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel, make up the rest of the spin bowling contingent.
Jadeja and Patel add batting depth. But India may have to consider a fourth spinner for the World Cup squad later, considering that Patel’s bowling has gone off the boil. Ravichandran Ashwin may get in ahead of Chahal for that slot.
The most heartening aspect of the Asia Cup squad is the return of India’s pace bowling ace, Jasprit Bumrah, along with the tall Karnataka speedster, Prasidh Krishna. Bumrah will be vital for India’s World Cup hopes. Krishna brings height and 145+ kmph speed to the attack, but he lacks game awareness.
Equally interesting will be the return of K.L. Rahul and Shreyas Iyer after rehabilitation from injuries. Rahul has the opportunity to take over the wicketkeeper-batsman position that Rishabh Pant’s car accident vacated. He can also make the No. 4 slot his own, and bring stability to that position. Whether he will do that without playing too conservatively at the team’s cost, as he has been wont to do of late, is the question. Ishan Kishan waits in the wings in case Rahul fails, plays selfishly, or hasn’t fully recovered.
This squad shapes up well on paper. How it performs on the field will depend on form and fitness. Losses to Pakistan will increase pressure to replace the older players with exciting new talent, as the likes of Varma and Jaiswal keep knocking louder on the door to the playing XI. In that sense, the Asia Cup is like the final selection trial for the World Cup.
Sumit Chakraberty is a Bengaluru-based writer.