The men in reckoning

While the Indian ODI team has a settled look for now, the selectors might spring a surprise or two as they look to find a winning combination ahead of the 2019 ICC ODI World Cup. We find out who these lucky men might be.

Cricket pundits speak highly of Rishabh Pant’s batting prowess and his indomitable spirit.   -  R. V. Moorthy

Axar Patel sounded quite excited a few days back as he was speaking about his future. The Gujarat all-rounder, who is more or less an automatic choice in the present Indian limited-overs set-up, didn’t even think twice before admitting that the focus is on the 2019 World Cup.

So what if the tournament is still a year and a half away, the Indian cricketers seem to have already set their sights on the coveted title, which they bagged for the last time in 2011.

It has been six years since and Indian cricket has witnessed quite a few sunsets and sunrises. Its World Cup-winning captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni has excused himself from the hot seat — paving the way for Virat Kohli to take charge as the skipper. Dhoni, however, remains available for selection in the limited-overs game and as we write, remains the first stumper in the side.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you would see him behind the stumps in the World Cup. Indian cricket, which has once again gone back to its youth policy, doesn’t promise a safe future for its long-serving heroes. The message is loud and clear — dream, if you are young.

After crushing Sri Lanka to a 3-0 defeat in Tests, skipper Kohli had indicated that the players will have to buck up if they want their slots to be safe. It brings back memories of a time when the legends of the game — V. V. S. Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid — too were given hints of calling it quits because they didn’t fit into the ‘young’ category. But then, all that talk remained within the corridors of Indian cricket. It was all about the whispers. 

But those were the days when Twitter was still taking baby steps in this part of the world. In today’s time, it is a completely different ball game. Captain Kohli has recently uploaded videos of his training, categorically indicating his boys to follow suit. All this has been well summed up by India’s new chief coach Ravi Shastri, who from the first day of his job, has spoken about setting up a core group for the World Cup in England.

And going by the trend, many in the cricketing circles believe that it is an uphill task for most of the old warhorses to book their tickets to London. With Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh ignored for the ODI series against Sri Lanka, the speculations have gone up.

While the core group looks ready with Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan, Ravindra Jadeja and Rohit Sharma — a few surprises could be in store for the tournament. These are still early days to make a choice, but then, going by the way the national selectors pick the India A side, that recently won the tri-series in South Africa, it looks like at least a couple of young faces are in the team management’s scheme of things.

As of now, the list looks something like this — Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer, Karun Nair, Basil Thampi, Siddharth Kaul. And, if finally there is a need to look beyond Dhoni, stumper-batsman Sanju Samson could also be in the fray. Of the six, it would be interesting to see, who finally makes the cut. This also comes with a disclaimer — in Indian cricket, where everything is a suspense, don’t be surprised if none of these six players make it to the side in the end. Since there is enough time before the tournament, a lot would also depend on how these young guns perform.

Former national selector Raja Venkat, however, believes that the current side looks pretty balanced, and the only change could be in the form of Pant or Samson. “But for that, the selectors should have given them games in Sri Lanka. This is the perfect time to groom the youngsters, since you still have nearly two years,” Venkat says. “I don’t know why Dhoni is being played against teams like West Indies and Sri Lanka. The youngsters could have been used here, but that’s the call of the selectors.”

The last few months have been quite an experience for young Pant, who made his international T20 debut earlier this year. While the cricket pundits have spoken highly of his batting prowess, his indomitable spirit has also been mentioned. Coming into the Indian Premier League, Pant had lost his father, and even then, the young gun re-joined the side quickly. That also was an example of his toughness as a cricketer. Though in the last few outings with Team India and India A, the swashbuckling batsman has just been adequate, the fraternity believes the newbie will improve with time. “He is a genuine talent and we need to give him a long rope,” says Venkat. These words of praise definitely brightens his chances of cementing a place in the main team.

Shreyas Iyer has been in the circuit for a while now, and in the recent tri-series in South Africa, he guided India A to a title victory.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

 

In the batting side of the game, the focus will also be on another talent, Shreyas Iyer. The Mumbai batsman has been in the circuit for a while now, and in the recent tri-series in South Africa, Iyer guided India A to a title victory. His determination and ability to score runs under pressure could certainly please the selectors for the mega-event. For that, however, he needs to be consistent.

The selectors should also consider giving a long rope to Karun Nair. While there is a perception that the Karnataka batsman is more comfortable in the longer format of the game, his ability to anchor the lower middle-order could work well for any side. With ample time in hand, trying to bring in Nair in the scheme of things should not be a bad option for the M. S. K. Prasad-led selection committee.

Another option could be that of Sanju Samson. The Kerala stumper-batsman has been in contention for a fair amount of time, and if there’s a back-up needed for Dhoni, Samson could be given the push. While he would face stiff competition from Pant — also suitable for the same slot — the ability to open and score quick runs could go in Sanju’s favour. But, realistically speaking, at this moment, if an alternative is required, the selectors are most likely to choose Pant over the Kerala boy.

The focus, however, shouldn’t be all on batting. In the faster conditions of England, genuine medium pacers would be effective, and for that Shardul Thakur, Basil Thampi and Siddharth Kaul could be looked at. Even though, Aniket Choudhary has been picked in the India A, the Rajasthan pacer might have to wait a bit longer for his chance.

Former India pacer and now Kerala’s bowling coach Tinu Yohannan feels that the IPL has helped Thampi get a new lease of life in cricket. 

After an impressive performance with the Gujarat Lions, the Kerala bowler hasn’t had a good outing for India A, but then, those who know him from close quarters are confident that the pacer would bounce back. 

Punjab pacer Siddharth Kaul may finally be lucky and earn a call to the national side. After scalping 36 wickets in the Ranji Trophy last season and 16 for Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL, Kaul has also picked up eight wickets for India A in the tri-series. The ability to put pressure on the batsman has been his biggest strength and that is something captain Kohli could also consider.

But then, Kaul will be facing fierce competition from his India A colleague Thakur, who bagged nine wickets in the tri-series. The performance also got him a berth in the senior side for the ODIs against Sri Lanka. And, if he can maintain his present form, the Mumbai bowler could well be one of the new inclusions in the World Cup squad.

All this, however, would remain as speculations for now. With another domestic season beckoning, there could be more talents coming out. Then there are also talents like Washington Sundar and Jaydev Unadkat, who too would be hoping to use their IPL experience to make the cut.