India’s selectors have packed the T20 World Cup squad with medium pacers who rely more on swing and variation than on speed and bounce. This defies logic, considering the hard wickets in Australia where the World Cup will be played. The selectors have also turned a deaf ear to the siren that went off in the Asia Cup where a medium pace bowling unit failed to defend scores of 173 against Sri Lanka and 181 against Pakistan.
India lost the toss in both those crucial Super 4 stage encounters in Dubai where batting first has been a disadvantage in bowling-friendly conditions. But Sri Lanka showed it could be done, by defending 170 with a comfortable margin of 23 runs in the final against Pakistan. Any score of over 170 wasn’t easy to chase at that venue, so India’s batting had evened the odds by posting scores in excess of 170. But it was the bowling that let the team down in the two matches that counted the most.
India were poised for a win against Pakistan. The latter needed 26 runs in the last two overs and had two new batsmen at the crease—the inexperienced Khushdil Shah and Asif Ali. This was also the case in the other match, with Sri Lanka four down, while needing 21 in the last two overs. These were winning positions for India, but in both cases, the 19th over went terribly wrong.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar conceded 19 runs in the 19th over against Pakistan, leaving the young Arshdeep Singh the daunting task of defending just 7 runs in the final over. He took it to the penultimate ball, to no avail. It was the same story against Sri Lanka. Kumar gave away 14 runs in the 19th over, leaving only 7 runs for Singh’s final over. Kumar’s leg-cutters and attempts to bowl full outside off-stump were too feeble in conditions that called for fast yorkers and bouncers.
Strangely enough, Mohammed Shami has played no part in India’s T20 plans this year, despite all the experimentation and rotation of players. He did perform poorly in the World Cup opener against Pakistan last year, but so did everyone else in the squad. That a bowler of his class hasn’t played a single T20 game for India since, speaks volumes about the arbitrary selection that has been the bane of India’s ICC tournament campaigns since 2011.
Shami’s 140+ kmph speed, his unerring seam position, and the ability to deliver fast yorkers accurately were instrumental in Gujarat Titans winning the IPL title this year. He took 20 wickets in 16 games at a decent economy rate of 8, which was way better than Bhuvneshwar’s 12 wickets from 14 games. And Shami has consistently delivered similar performances in the previous three IPL seasons. And yet, this experienced world class pacer has played only 17 T20 games for India since his debut in 2014; Bhuvneshwar Kumar has played 77 since his debut in 2012. Shami has often proved expensive but surely a bowler with his exceptional skills could have been nurtured better with more exposure. His 152 ODI wickets at an economy rate of 5.6, coupled with his IPL performances over the last four years, warranted a longer run in the T20 team, especially seeing how long a rope other seniors have got.
Shami took 3 for 31, including the wickets of the dangerous Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler—complementing Jasprit Bumrah’s 6 for 19—to demolish England for 110 at the Oval in July. This performance should have reaffirmed to the selectors that the Shami-Bumrah pairing is a lethal opening combination in all formats of the game. They also make for a formidable death overs duo of yorker exponents. And yet, despite Bumrah’s absence, Shami wasn’t taken to the Asia Cup as India’s pace spearhead.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar has amped up his pace a bit since returning to the team last year after a hernia surgery. And this has made him more potent with the new ball in conditions that are conducive for seam and swing bowling, like in England and Dubai. But he still bowls at below 140kmph, which is below par for a new ball partner to Bumrah on Australian pitches.
Arshdeep Singh can crank up an occasional ball past 140kmph, but he’s in the team mainly as a death overs specialist because of his accuracy with yorkers. Harshal Patel is another medium-pacer in the sub-140kmph category who relies mostly on slower ball variations. That leaves Bumrah as the only genuine fast bowler in the Indian squad for the World Cup, not counting Hardik Pandya who plays as an all-rounder rather than a specialist pacer. Shami could have easily replaced one of these medium pacers in the main squad. He could still force the hand of the selectors in the upcoming series against Australia and South Africa, but for that, he has to be allowed to play.
Another dubious call by the selectors is to include the spin trio of Yuzvendra Chahal, Ravichandran Ashwin, and Axar Patel. Neither Ashwin nor Patel has been a wicket-taker of note in the middle overs this year, and Chahal can unravel under attack as he did against Pakistan. Ravi Bishnoi, whose style is different from the loopy leg-spin of Chahal, could have taken one of the slots. A Chahal-Bishnoi combination in the playing 11 would have been interesting in Australia where leg-spinners have thrived more than finger spinners.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.