Twelve years after India’s fabled recapturing of the ODI World Cup by MS Dhoni & Co., the quadrennial showpiece returns to the subcontinent.
Lifting the cup on home turf will be the recurring theme as India looks to banish the ghosts of knockout eliminations and go all the way this time.
The hullabaloo over selections has been as fervent as any World Cup year warrants. It halted on Tuesday when national selector Ajit Agarkar confirmed the 15-member squad. It is the breakdown that begins now.
To be fair, captain Rohit Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid have had a fair bit of leeway in decoding their combinations. Players have been through a roulette, roles have changed, slots have shuffled, and some new faces have been brought in. But this long end of the rope comes with a double-edged sword.
The chances have been granted graciously with a tacit indemnification clause; repeat the heroics of 2011. Nothing less will work. Do what they did. Stand shoulder to shoulder with the team of 2011.
But can they really? Will it make for a fair comparison? While predicting the team to mirror the performances of its predecessor this soon would be a hasty take, there is no harm in judging it for its preparedness. That is where the 2011 team comes in.
That team provides a blueprint of sorts with its combinations and how to exploit them best in home conditions. Running Rohit’s team under the same lens indeed answers what might work and not for it come October.
The 2011 unit boasted of slightly more experience in the batting order. Right at the top, Sachin Tendulkar partnering with Virender Sehwag was a combination tried and tested in international cricket. Sehwag was playing his third World Cup, while Sachin was on his sixth. Lower down the order, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir and Dhoni had all gotten a taste of the World Cup frenzy earlier.
This year, on the contrary, Shubman Gill will face the chin music for the first time and so will Ishan Kishan and Shreyas Iyer.
A lot of weight will be on the shoulders of skipper Rohit and Virat Kohli, and their 500-plus international caps experience will come handy. But given the Indian top-order’s history of misfiring lately, the young middle order seems a bit vulnerable.
It is safe to say that between Kohli and Rohit firing or floundering lies the fate of the Indian batting order.
The stable middle-order of 2011
Beyond experience, the 2011 batting unit was sure-footed with its personnel and order. Gautam Gambhir walked in at No. 3, followed by Kohli, Yuvraj, Dhoni, and Yusuf Pathan in the middle order. Suresh Raina replaced Pathan in the second half of the competition.
Dhoni and Yuvraj had a repertoire for anchoring India’s innings. Pathan had undergone a trial by fire in the lower middle order in the run-up to the tournament. His quickfire hundred in South Africa, albeit in a losing cause, was the final seal of approval that he would pull his weight.
Although Gambhir was accommodated at one-down to allow Tendulkar and Sehwag to open, he became a natural at the spot, scoring four half-centuries in nine innings.
How the current Indian team will put forth its cards remains to be seen. More so, the players who have had chances have been guilty of not grabbing them.
The No.4 spot remains a conundrum that India simply cannot seem to get the hang of. Having tried as many as eight options at the position, Iyer, for now, emerges as the best bet.
The next slot is likely to be contested by three players. KL Rahul made the cut for the 15-member team but his spot in the starting lineup is not set in stone. Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav put their contention forth for the No.5 spot too.
Kishan could make the slot his own if he can emulate the innings against Pakistan in the Asia Cup opener. But this Asia Cup will have chances for Rahul too, who is making a return from a lengthy injury hiatus.
The fact that either Kishan or Rahul will slot into the team as the keeper in the absence of Rishabh Pant adds another layer to this enigma.
The all-rounders mix
All-rounders Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja make up the lower middle order. Both are sure-shot starters for India and shoulder a massive burden of holding the batting line-up in place in case the top and middle give in.
Jadeja has an understudy in Axar Patel who will prove handy for India at some point in the tournament. Shardul Thakur has shown he can do more than just hold a bat.
With the ball, they are almost like-for-like replacements. Both Jadeja and Axar bowl left-arm orthodox spin. Pandya and Thakur are both medium pacers with the latter offering slightly more through lateral movement.
In 2011, only Pathan and Raina offered such a combination in off-spin. Yuvraj was the sole left-arm off-break option. Tendulkar and Sehwag could roll their arms when called on. Though spin-heavy, the 2011 all-rounders offered more diversity with in slower bowling.
What the all-rounders brought to the table was complemented by the frontline bowlers in 2011. Dhoni’s side ticked every box in the spin department with Piyush Chawla’s right-arm leg spin - something Rohit will miss out on after leaving Yuzvendra Chahal out. In ODIs since 2019, among spinners, Chahal has picked 65 wickets in 36 innings, second only to Kuldeep Yadav’s 74.
Kuleep and Chahal strike a fatal partnership in the 50-over format, and hence, the latter’s omission raises eyebrows.
With Ravichandran Ashwin out of commission, India will be without a right-arm off-spinner. Dhoni’s side had two - Harbhajan Singh and Ashwin. The Tamil Nadu and India veteran has played only two ODIs since 2019. The second option, Washington Sundar, too, has just 15 games in the same period.
Even in its pace battery, the 2011 team ensured variety. Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra were the left-arm options with Munaf Patel and S Sreesanth being the remaining two seamers.
Rohit will not have the luxury of a left-arm seamer at his disposal. Arshdeep Singh and Khaleel Ahmed have been the only two to have played an ODI since 2019. Their limited games and a combined total of four wickets never made a case for India going with a southpaw.
In Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, and Mohammad Siraj, Rohit will have the full-strength pace lineup. But if both Pandya and Shardul find a place in the starting 11, one of the three frontline seamers will have to sit out.
Throughout his tenure as captain, Rohit has emphasised testing out his ranks. There have been chances for everyone in the team. Now, with the World Cup fast approaching, a different approach is needed to test its premier names.
Barring a couple of spots in the middle order and the third all-rounder role, all other places have a suitor.
In the at least three games left in the ongoing Asia Cup, and the three more against Australia at home, lies a chance to hand them valuable game time. It is time to iron out the chinks. With time running out, hitting consistency with a set line-up will shape India best for a repeat of 2011.
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