Outgoing coach Ravi Shastri attributed India’s early exit from the T20 World Cup this year to “bubble fatigue” which prevented the players from being “switched on”. One can argue that factors like team selection, game strategy, and playing conditions had a bigger effect. But there’s no denying the fact that India is the main driver of global cricket revenue, which means Indian players are always on demand whether they’re playing for the country or the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Now a number of players have been rested from the T20 series against New Zealand starting on Wednesday. But with top IPL performers like Ruturaj Gaikwad, Venkatesh Iyer, Avesh Khan, Harshal Patel, and Yuzvendra Chahal coming in, the side actually looks stronger than the one fielded in the World Cup which had semi-fit and out-of-form players like Hardik Pandya and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. It goes to show the bench strength available, thanks to the IPL, which begs the question why the selectors felt compelled to pick players with questionable fitness and form for the World Cup.
The abundance of India’s reserve talent was evident in the Australia Test series at the start of this year, when a number of regular players got injured and Kohli took paternity leave. None of the Indian bowlers in the epic last Test in Brisbane figured in the first Test. Yet, India won the series with a substitute captain, Ajinkya Rahane, who showed more aggression with his attacking fields than any of the histrionics of Virat Kohli.
Discovery of talent has become easier because of the IPL where players as well as captains are pitted against the best in the world. Now if a rotation policy is instituted, starting with the New Zealand series, it will give more opportunities to players in form to challenge incumbents for positions in the T20, ODI, and Test teams. But this will only yield results with clear guidelines and intelligent selection.
It’s all very well for some of the top players to take a break from a relatively inconsequential home series where India have the advantage of local conditions. Or to send a second-string team for a tour of Sri Lanka which has descended below Afghanistan in world cricket standings. Will the board and broadcasters be comfortable with marquee players being rotated out of tours to South Africa, England, New Zealand, or Australia?
Many of the players themselves may not be enthusiastic about missing out on any high visibility series, despite all the talk of mental fatigue. After all, there’s a mega auction coming up for the IPL, and as the old adage goes, out of sight is out of mind. Besides, what if their replacements do so well that they can’t get back in? A Kohli or a Jasprit Bumrah can walk into the team any time they please, but that doesn’t apply to most players.
KL Rahul was a third choice as a Test opener in England, but he got an opportunity with first Shubman Gill and then Mayank Agarwal being sidelined with injury. Rahul did so well that Gill or Agarwal can now get into the playing eleven only if Rahul or Rohit Sharma take a break. Sharma has indeed dropped out of the two Tests at home against New Zealand, but he had such a long wait before proving himself in Tests abroad this year that he should be back at the top when India travel overseas. This leaves a question mark hanging over Gill who played that sterling innings of 91 as an opener on the famous final day of the Brisbane Test not long ago.
Worthy contenders for the opening slot are even more numerous in white ball cricket because the IPL showcases them. Ruturaj Gaikwad was the highest run-getter in this year’s IPL. Venkatesh Iyer was a revelation when Kolkata Knight Riders gave him a free rein. Ishan Kishan lit up last year’s IPL and played a mind-boggling knock in Mumbai Indians’ last game this year. Why, even Kohli could be an option, given his struggle to lift his strike rate in the middle overs, whereas he did better as an opener for Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB).
Likewise, there are ample options for every position. In fact, the selectors are so spoilt for choice that it seems absurd that India haven’t won a single ICC title for a decade. But when the choices are so many, it also increases the chances of the selectors, coach, and captain blundering, as they did in picking the squad and playing eleven for the T20 World Cup.
Going forward, the new T20 captain, Rohit Sharma, and coach, Rahul Dravid, need to be in sync with the selectors to identify the players most likely to do well in Australia where the next T20 World Cup will be played.
It’s a given, for example, that a roster of fast bowlers who can hit the deck at over 140 kmph will be essential. So it’s a surprise to see Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the squad for the New Zealand T20 series, considering that he has been struggling to reach 130 kmph after returning from an injury layoff.
With so much cricket being played, and so many players being available, the selectors can well afford to wait till a player proves his form before drafting him back into the national side. By picking Kumar, they missed an opportunity to try out the new sensation from Kashmir, Umran Malik, who bowled in the IPL at over 150 kmph, like Haris Rauf did for Pakistan in the World Cup. Why make do with a slow medium 125 kmph opening bowler? No amount of rotation can help India unless the selection gets smarter.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.