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How should Indian cricket evolve in a World Cup year?

In the year of the ODI World Cup, the Indian think tank needs to make the correct selection decisions

Indian selectors will need to make smart squad selections this year. (AFP)

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It’s the ODI World Cup year, and India will be strong contenders, playing at home. But skipper Rohit Sharma’s chances of reprising M.S. Dhoni’s 2011 feat may well depend on coach Rahul Dravid getting better at handling India’s problem of plenty.

The Indian Premier League (IPL) has been unearthing so much talent that the coach and selectors are spoilt for choice. That’s generally considered a good thing, but it can become a problem if the think tank gets confused and ends up making sub-optimal selections. 

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For example, 37-year-old Dinesh Karthik suddenly re-entered the T20 team as its ‘finisher’ after some cameos in IPL 2022. He replaced 25-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant, whose exploits in international cricket had marked him out as India’s most promising player of the future. Pant was only reinstated one game before the T20 World Cup semi-final, after a string of poor performances from Karthik as a batsman and wicketkeeper. 

There were several other knee-jerk moves. Despite outstanding performances in IPL 2022 and ODIs, Mohammed Shami did not play a single T20 game for India in 2022 until he came into the World Cup squad as a last-minute replacement for the injured Jasprit Bumrah. And, despite the crying need for a wicket-taking leg-spinner in the middle overs, like Adil Rashid for England, Yuzvendra Chahal was parked on the bench throughout the World Cup, while India persisted with off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin.

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India will have to do much better than that in the lead up to the 2023 ODI World Cup for the team to stand a better chance of winning, after failing in the Asia Cup and the T20 World Cup last year. Now the game of musical chairs to ‘try out’ a bevy of players in multiple roles resumes with the ongoing T20 and ODI series against Sri Lanka.

It’s all very well that new, young players get opportunities. And some rotation is unavoidable as players get injured or rested. But the think tank needs to keep a focus on the ultimate goal of finding a winning combination for the World Cup. That requires giving players a long enough run to either prove themselves or be dropped from the reckoning. 

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The ODI squad for the Sri Lanka series appears to be a new starting point. The seniors Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli continue in the squad, which is a better practice than resting them to give younger players a chance. It helps nobody if a player gets a game or two and then makes way when the seniors return. 

By winning both the ODI and T20 World Cups, England have set a benchmark for playing more risk-taking cricket. Batsmen have, by and large, abandoned anchor roles to maintain a high scoring rate throughout the innings, unless the situation requires otherwise. Likewise, bowlers are encouraged to aim for wickets. 

It was clear in the T20 World Cup that India’s top strikers are now in the middle order, because Virat Kohli and K.L. Rahul are playing conservatively. So the series against Sri Lanka is a chance to see if there’s a case for a more dynamic player at the top, like Ishan Kishan who smashed 210 in 131 balls as an opener in Bangladesh. Kohli also got a century in that game, but it was at a low strike rate even though the game situation did not require him to be so conservative.

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Pant’s car accident on 30 December, in which he was lucky to survive but suffered serious injuries, including a right knee ligament tear, likely means a long layoff. This puts Kishan in the spotlight as a wicketkeeper-opener—a role that Rahul has also played. For Kishan to get an extended run as an opener, Rahul would have to move to the middle order. Kohli’s No.3 slot should also be up for grabs if he continues to fail to lift his scoring rate against spin bowling. 

The absence of Shikhar Dhawan after his failures in Bangladesh indicates that the team management is searching for a new top order ODI combination. Likewise, the absence of Ashwin suggests that the team is looking for a spin trio of wicket-takers. 

Washington Sundar has returned to the fray as the off-spinning all-rounder, but more exciting still is the return of Kuldeep Yadav. This young spinner’s confidence got shaken in the IPL after Dinesh Karthik took over the captaincy of Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), gave Kuldeep only four games in the 2020 season and benched him throughout the 2021 season. 

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The left-arm leg-spin googly exponent regained his mojo last year after moving to Delhi Capitals where Aussie coaches Ricky Ponting and Shane Watson, along with skipper Rishabh Pant, made him feel secure about his position in the side. He became the fifth highest wicket-taker in the league. 

Unfortunately, the spectre of being in and out of the team returned to haunt Yadav last month in Bangladesh. The Indian team management dropped him from the playing 11 for the second Test right after he had taken eight wickets to be the player-of-the-match in the first Test. 

Dravid felt the need for a third seamer, and Jaydev Unadkat had a decent debut with three wickets in the second Test. But, in the larger scheme of things, which is to win the ODI World Cup this year at home, it was imperative to retain Yadav after his fabulous comeback performance. India will need match-winners like him if Rohit Sharma hopes to lift the Cup, like Dhoni did in 2011. 

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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