Considering that India’s T20 team is a far-from-finished product in this World Cup year, the IPL presents a great opportunity for a number of players to stake their claims. From the opener to partner Rohit Sharma to finishers and spinners, not many spots are cemented yet. The management and selectors would have to not only assess performance but take judgment calls on whether performers in India can succeed on larger grounds in Australia.
Is Kohli the best No. 3 for India?
So far, Virat Kohli has been an anchor batsman in his T20 avatar. A touch old-fashioned in this frenetic format, he prefers to start slowly, build up, and then open up. The likes of him, Kane Williamson and Dawid Malan are a good fit in certain teams; but what about India? There is a sameness, a stale similarity, in the top order with Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Kohli. Some teams have musclemen to follow, but India are still on the lookout for them. There is no Andre Russell (in his pomp of him). Even Hardik Pandya seems to be on the fringes. Without an explosive finisher and more importantly, the sameness at the top, Kohli will have to change his game a touch.
In another team, he could continue to do what he does but in this Indian team, perhaps the time has come for Kohli to show us his version 2.0.
Rohit Sharma is the captain and a proven success in T20s; there is no point in the opener changing his game drastically. Rahul can hit from the start when specifically given that role, but Kohli would still have to adapt and tweak his game a bit. Else, particularly if Rohit doesn’t fire, they can meander a touch and flounder later in the absence of proven power-hitters. Rishabh Pant is there, but most teams have a few and India might still get there by the World Cup, but as of now it isn’t clear who those batsmen will be. If Kohli can tweak and start stronger then he usually does, it can work in his by him and the team’s favor by him. Else the pressure of run-scoring falls on Shreyas Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav – which isn’t necessarily bad. But if Kohli can take up the role, the youngsters can sail along with him. Is Kohli the best No. 3 for India?
The pressure on Kohli stems from those around him, from the combination of this Indian team, and it’s time for him to show he can rise above all that. The Australian grounds might throw up batting-friendly pitches for the T20 World Cup but there would be more bounce than most other places and Kohli can prosper (more than others) in theory. This IPL offers him the opportunity to try to get into that role. Would he rise to the challenge?
Who will partner Rohit Sharma?
As the last T20 World Cup showed, India tends to sink or swim with Rohit’s form. Considering his di lui last one year or so, India will twiddle their thumbs over his fitness di lui. That leaves them with the question about his partner of him. Rahul has shown in the past in IPL, particularly when not the captain, that he can don the all-out attacking role. When the team has depended heavily on him, as Punjab Kings did, he has had to temper his approach di lui after the Powerplay. In an Indian team environment, he can carry the role of the enforcer.
The other option is Rohit’s IPL opening partner, Ishan Kishan. He has shown he can be a frenetic hitter but it remains to be seen how effective he can be on the larger grounds in Australia, and against good pacers who can use that extra bounce on offer. The first choice for Australia is likely to be Rahul, unless Kishan dazzles in this IPL to stake his claim of him. Until a year back, Prithvi Shaw was in contention but he would need outstandingly consistent performances in the IPL to make a dent.
Who is the one swing option: Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Deepak Chahar?
Since India are blessed with Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, they can zoom in on one swing bowler and going by the events of the recent past, it seems they are thinking about Chahar. He has dazzled for Chennai Super Kings with the new ball, often bowling three overs at least at the start and has shown he can get the ball to curve away under lights. His batting di lui too has come on really well. That leaves Bhuvneshwar with a lot of catching up to do in this IPL. He was the original swinger who was good enough to do the job in Tests before his fitness di lui and India’s requirements changed that equation. He has the skills to succeed in Australia: the swing, the surprise bouncer and willingness to use it, and the ability to drag back his length and nip the ball back into right-handers when he wants to keep them quiet. But of late, the consistency has slipped a touch, and he would require a bumper IPL to move past Chahar, who also needs a good IPL to stay ahead in the race.
Shardul Thakur too can break through in this field if he has a stellar IPL. It will come down to how CSK uses him, but if he can perform with bat and ball, he can make a case. As yet, he hasn’t inked himself as the swinging new-ball bowler or the consistent death bowler. He would need to somehow create a niche for himself to have a shot at the World Cup. With the lack of big hitters, his batting di lui can then push him ahead of a few contenders.
The spin puzzle
On paper, there are a lot of choices, but first India would have to determine what they need from the spinner. Someone who can slip in a few relatively quiet overs or someone who can take out a couple of wickets. Most spinners going around try to get wickets by keeping the run rate down, hoping the batsmen’s rash urges nail them down. In his pomp di lui, Ravichandran Ashwin can do both and has the confidence of the captain as well but in T20s, he also can settle into a containing role a tad too quickly. (Not that runs are really contained by most spinners, but the approach solely becomes that). That was one of the reasons the likes of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav were given a long run in white-ball cricket. Chahal has shown even in Australian conditions (on previous tours) that he can winkle out wickets with his skill di lui but of late, his confidence of him seems to have ebbed a bit.
It would be a credit to Rohit’s captaincy – and his one real challenge, in fact – if he can get Kuldeep in groove. But in the IPL, it’s not in his hands di lui, and Kuldeep’s fortunes depend on Pant and Delhi Capitals head coach Ricky Ponting. It remains to be seen if they give him enough opportunities and whether he cashes in.
That leaves us with the highly-likely scenario of Ravi Bishnoi pushing past the contenders. India dabbled with the likes of Rahul Chahar and Varun Chakravarthy in the previous T20 World Cups and this IPL presents a great opportunity for Bishnoi to stake his claim di lui. If he can consistently show that he can be trusted to not leak runs and take wickets, then with his wrist spin and extra bounce, he can find himself with a shot at that World Cup spot. Hence, this IPL is also extra crucial for Ashwin to keep performing and showing his worth of him as someone who can bowl at any stage in a game to retain Rohit’s trust. In the end, it will come down to what Rohit wants in a spinner and if he has communicated that to the contenders, this IPL will allow us a glimpse.
Who is the power-hitter?
Apart from Pant, who have India got? Going by recent selections, it seems that the selectors will only punt on Hardik Pandya, the allrounder, and not Pandya, the finisher. In that case, this IPL will give us a verdict on him. There is Deepak Hooda but the decision on him would come down to his potential di lui to succeed on large Australian grounds. A huge IPL won’t hurt but that (Australian) judgment call would also be taken during it. Shahrukh Khan has been the other viral dazzler in town and this IPL is huge for him to impress the wise men. With India playing Venkatesh Iyer as a finisher and seemingly loath to try out his bowling skills, Iyer finds himself in a dicey position.
KKR too may not be willing to feature in the role the national team uses him, and so, he will have to depend a lot on the imagination of the selectors and team management to visualise him as a finisher. Unless, he uses this IPL to create welcome headaches for the management by excelling as a maverick attacking opener and forcing them to view him as an option to partner Rohit. So will Pant, but the dearth of finishers has perhaps forced Pant’s fate di lui.
Who will partner Bumrah in the end overs?
Shami and Harshal Patel are the chief contenders but it can change this IPL. Either through success or through failure. If Patel can’t reprise his magic from earlier seasons and if someone else bursts through, that slot can be up for grabs. The management / selectors would also factor in Australian conditions to back up their choices.