India's playing XI against Pakistan in the 2022 Asia Cup Super 4 match on Sunday was another peek into the permutations and combinations India might mull over heading into this year's T20 World Cup in Australia in October.
Among the three changes India made, the one that stood out was Rishabh Pant in place of Dinesh Karthik.
If the top three are untouched and Suryakumar Yadav, Hardik Pandya and Deepak Hooda / Axar Patel — should Ravindra Jadeja be ruled out of World Cup — form the middle order, then that leaves just one batting spot open.
Pant and Karthik both are vying for the finisher's role and not the wicketkeeper's spot. Karthik has been India's preferred finisher in T20Is this year, striking at 170.73 between overs 17 and 20 in 2022.
In this year's IPL, Karthik's 330 runs for Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) came at a strike rate of 183.33. So, the right-hander has done everything that has been asked of him.
In contrast, Pant managed to score just 340 runs from 14 IPL games in 2022 with an average of 30.91. Yet, what gives Pant an edge is that he is a left-hander - something India doesn't have in plenty -, who can be utilised as a floater, as per match situation.
This year, he has been excellent against pace - 211 runs at an average of 30.14 and strike rate of 143.53 - while struggling against spin - 63 runs at an average of 15.75 and strike rate of 110.52. Karthik’s international record since the start of 2022 is similar, although he has been better against the tweakers: a strike rate of 133.60 against pace and 130 against spin.
Delhi Capitals coach Ricky Ponting had earlier advocated using Pant as a floater in Australia. "In certain situations, where it gets to a stage where there are seven-eight overs to go and they are one-two down, then I will look at sending him in and giving as much time as I possibly can. He is that dynamic and that explosive and that is certainly the way I would look at trying to use him," Ponting told the ICC Review.
But if Pant does get the nod ahead of Karthik, it would mean Hardik Pandya would then have to carry out the role of the finisher. On Sunday, Pant walked out at 5, ahead of Pandya and Deepak Hooda, to counter the slow left-arm spin of Mohammad Nawaz and leg-spinner Shadab Khan.
However, he was caught off Shadab for a 12-ball 14. Pandya followed suit for a two-ball duck, with India five down for 131.
The only scenario in which both Pant and Karthik can be in India's first choice XI is if a top-order batter is dropped, which is highly unlikely, save some last-minute injury to one of the top three.
So, India's new T20 approach must be as much about scoring runs as role specificity. After the Asia Cup, India will play three T20Is against Australia and three T20Is against South Africa, at home, between September 20 and October 11.
For skipper Rohit Sharma and head coach Rahul Dravid, it is a chance not only to zero in on the 15 but also to decide the imminent makeup of their playing XI.
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