With just five months to go until the ICC T20 Men’s World Cup begins, the inaugural winners of the tournament have plenty of selection dilemmas to resolve.
India head into another ICC tournament with over a billion people expecting their highly-talented team to win some major silverware for the first time since lifting the ICC Champions Trophy 2013 trophy in England.
With T20I series coming up against South Africa, Ireland and England before the big dance, the real predicament for the sub-continent giants might be picking the right combination from an abundantly talented pool of players.
So, who could make the cut and book a seat to Australia later this year?
Are the top-three locked in?
On initial assessment, Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli seem set to have their slots sealed on the team.
While these three might eventually be the chosen ones, the recent form of Sharma and Virat Kohli is a thing of concern. A combined tally of just two fifties in 28 innings between the duo, and a batting average of 19.14 for Sharma and 23.76 for Kohli in the IPL, has raised some serious red flags in a World Cup year.
If India do persist with this trio, it also means they would have three right-handers at the top.
Interestingly, six of the previous seven winners of the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup had a left hand-right hand opening pair in the final with Pakistan (2010) being the only exception.
If not them, then who?
Enter Shikhar Dhawan and some wildcard options.
In addition to his consistent IPL numbers, Dhawan has a history of performing well at ICC events with an average of 53.70 in the ICC Mens Cricket World Cup and 77.88 in the ICC Champions Trophy. He won the Player of the Tournament award at the ICC Champions Trophy 2013 and also has fond memories on Australian soil with two ODI centuries and a T20I average of 33.87.
Ishan Kishan, Shubman Gill, Devdutt Padikkal and Ruturaj Gaikwad who have performed well opening the innings for their respective IPL franchises could be potential options. The biggest concern with picking anyone from this batch is their lack of experience with the four combining for only 15 T20Is, with Kishan’s 10 T20Is making up the bulk of that tally.
Who takes up the finisher’s role?
Finding a consistent middle order and the impossible seeming task of replacing MS Dhoni’s finishing ability could continue to be a concern for India.
Over the last year, we have seen Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav and Hardik Pandya taking turns to fill that void. While Pant would remain irreplaceable given he is the primary wicket-keeping option, the team would still need at least one more reliable finisher in their ranks.
In Pandya, India have a versatile floater who could bat in multiple positions depending on the match situation. Also unlike Iyer and Yadav, who have only played one game between them in Australia, the Gujarat Titans captain had an incredible tour Down Under in 2020.
Pandya averaged 105 thanks to two massive innings of 90 and 92 * in the three-match ODI series, and also won the Player of the Series award in the T20I series win against the hosts. Confidence has never been an issue for the flamboyant all-rounder but his recently acquired captaincy role in the IPL seems to have refilled that tank to the brim.
A perfect mixture of form and experience, should India look for additional options, is Dinesh Karthik. Not only was he part of the title winning squads at both the T20 World Cup 2007 and ICC Champions Trophy 2013, he has also averaged 57.40 and scored at strike-rate of 191.33 for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in this year’s IPL.
He has made his case in the best possible way but will the selectors take a leap of faith and add Karthik to the World Cup squad?
Will India stick to their two-spinner strategy?
India’s preference, or reliance, on a good spin-attack is no secret and we could see them continue to play to their strengths this October.
The exclusion of Yuzvendra Chahal from the 2021 India squad was arguably the biggest talking point ahead of the T20 World Cup. The leg-spinner has since turned a page, joined a new IPL franchise and with 26 wickets to his name, currently sits top of the most wickets table this season.
Kuldeep Yadav has been in equally good form over the last two months picking up 21 wickets, while the veteran Ravichandran Ashwin has showcased his versatility and efficiency with the bat, scoring at a strike rate of 146 with an average of 30.
That’s three good choices named already and we have not even mentioned the ever-so-reliable Ravindra Jadeja. The all-rounder who is pillar in the T20I squad had a less than ideal IPL season which started with a poor captaincy spell with the Chennai Super Kings and was eventually ruled out of the tournament with injury.
Currently, it wouldn’t be a surprise if three or even all four of these spinners board the plane to Australia with the likes of Axar Patel and Ravi Bishnoi an outside chance of taking their spot.
Is this the best pace attack India has ever had?
If there was a graph plotting the growth in quality of fast bowlers in India from the 1990s to 2022, that graph would point in a positive direction.
Fans would remember relying only on a handful of fast bowlers to pick up wickets with the likes of Manoj Prabhakar, Kapil Dev, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad carrying the mantle for the majority of the 1990s.
But those days are gone. India’s current fast bowling attack is arguably the best it has ever been and the depth they possess validates the statement.
It’s hard to find many better death-over bowlers in the world than Jasprit Bumrah. His strike partner Mohammed Shami brings discipline at the top of the innings and with the pace duo having 683 international wickets between them, ensuring experience should not be an issue.
But this is where things get interesting for the Indian selectors with plenty of pacers potentially putting their hand up for the final fast-bowling spot in the starting 11.
Harshal Patel continues to be a menace in the death overs for all IPL opponents picking up 18 wickets and with the variety he offers, could be the front-runner to be Bumrah’s partner to finish the innings.
On the other hand, Punjab Kings’ Arshdeep Singh offers discipline and more importantly, a left-arm fast bowling option. Four of the seven previous T20 World Cup winners had at least one left-arm seamer in their final winning team.
The only other left-arm seamer that India could look at is T. Natarajan who has also picked up 18 wickets but has been a bit expensive conceding 9.44 runs / over.
And then we have the wildest of wildcards with Umran Malik breaking every figurative glass ceiling there is with his extraordinary pace. Not only has Malik consistently bowled around the 150kmph mark, he also has 21 wickets in this year’s IPL which puts him in the top five wicket-takers for the season.
There is no substitute for raw pace and it’s probably one of the only traits you cannot teach a fast bowler. We often hear the term “x-factor” thrown around in T20 Cricket and the 22-year-old Malik could be that x-factor for his team.
India could also consider someone with a bit more experience like Shardul Thakurwho was part of the 2021 edition of the T20 World Cup or look at Prasidh Krishna who made his international debut earlier this year.
The selectors have some time before critical decisions are made but with less than five months to go for ICC T20 World Cup 2022, they would prefer the answers to arrive sooner rather than later.
* (Statistics / data mentioned are as of 22 May 2022)