The next few weeks will throw up several challenges for the national selectors and the Indian team management. India will begin its T20 World Cup campaign on October 23 against Pakistan, and before that, the team needs to ensure that it gets its fast bowling combination right.
With a recurring back injury ruling Jasprit Bumrah out of the tournament, the selectors have a big question to answer — who will replace Bumrah? Will it be the seasoned Mohammed Shami or Deepak Chahar?
Since India is among the teams that have qualified for the Super 12 stage of the World Cup, it can make changes to its squad — without ICC's approval — till October 15. So, the selectors want to be sure about Shami’s fitness before formally naming him as Bumrah’s replacement.
There are also speculations that Mohammed Siraj could be added to the squad keeping his past records in Australia in mind. But he has played just five T20Is - the last being in February this year against Sri Lanka - and that could work against him. Siraj was added to India’s squad for remainder of South Africa T20I series as replacement for Bumrah.
What works for Shami?
A few weeks ago, former Australian fast bowler, Brett Lee, told Sportstar it would be difficult to look past Shami for the T20 World Cup if he remained fit. Back then, the selectors had not picked the squad for the mega event, but Lee stressed that with fitness issues hovering over Bumrah, a seasoned campaigner like Shami would bring steadiness to the bowling line-up.
“He’s been there before. He’s been in situations where he has bowled in difficult conditions in Australia. He is a skiddy bowler, he is quick, and can bowl a good bouncer. I’m going to advocate for him because I think he would be good for the team, pending fitness,” Lee had said.
Indeed, Shami hasn’t played international T20s since November last year. But it is also a fact that the 32-year-old had a rewarding IPL 2022 with Gujarat Titans - bagging 20 wickets in 16 matches. Most importantly, in the IPL, he excelled in the Powerplay and helped the Titans have early breakthroughs. Of the 20 wickets in the season, 11 came in the PowerPlay at an economy rate of 6.62.
The selectors named Shami as one of the standbys for the T20 World Cup and wanted to give him enough game time in the six T20Is at home against Australia and South Africa, respectively. But he missed out on both the series due to COVID-19.
So then, with hardly any game time and clarity over his fitness, does Shami still qualify as Bumrah’s automatic replacement? The cricketing fraternity believes so. Soon after he was named in the standby, former India coach and selector Anshuman Gaekwad had batted for Shami’s inclusion in the squad.
And when Bhuvneshwar Kumar is struggling for form, the team management would ideally want to look at someone like a Shami, who understands match situations and can accordingly up his game.
“Besides his experience, Shami has a knack for picking up wickets as and when required. You need a strike bowler. So, Shami could have been more effective,” Gaekwad had said.
The fact that the standbys, too, would be travelling with the team is a boon for the management as they can try Shami out in the warmup games and assess his fitness before taking a final call.
Of Chahar, Arshdeep and the new ball
In case the selectors look at Chahar as Bumrah's replacement, then it has to be for his skills in the PowerPlay. Returning from an injury lay-off after seven months, Chahar has had limited opportunities. But in the first T20I against South Africa in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday, Chahar came up with an outstanding spell with the new ball.
Bowling in tandem with youngster Arshdeep Singh, Chahar stunned the South African top-order by taking two wickets in the PowerPlay and helping reduce the visiting side to 9 for 5. Meanwhile, Arshdeep is a proven contender at the death. In IPL 2022, he had an economy rate of 7.58 - second only to Bumrah's 7.38. He also took four wickets during that phase. But Arshdeep's new-ball exploits in the game against South Africa, where he took three wickets inside the first six overs, are good signs for India. If he can bowl a couple of early overs with the new ball, it will allow Harshal Patel to bowl his usual quota of overs between 7 and 16.
If Bhuvneshwar struggles for rhythm in the T20 World Cup, the Chahar-Arshdeep pair could be a viable option upfront. Both Chahar and Bhuvneshwar are adept at swinging the new ball both ways. So, Chahar can actually be a like-for-like replacement for Bhuvneshwar. The fact that Chahar can contribute with the bat further raises his stakes. In 43 T20s, Chahar has scored 287 at a strike rate of 129. In T20Is, he has scored 22 in five innings at a strike rate of 244.44. In IPL, in 63 matches he has 79 runs.
Concerns at the death
Death bowling has been an area of concern for India of late. India is likely to field three fast bowlers and use Hardik Pandya as the fourth seamer.
In the last few outings - including the Asia Cup - Bhuvneshwar has been quite expensive in the 19th over, often putting the pressure on Arshdeep, who bowled the final over in Asia Cup outings. But in Australia, where there could be low-scoring totals to defend, the Indian team cannot afford to leak runs in the 19th over.
Despite emerging as the Player of the Series twice - against South Africa and England - Bhuvneshwar had a tumultuous outing at the death in the Asia Cup and the just-concluded T20Is against Australia. He conceded 19 runs against Pakistan in the 19th over, following it up with 14 against Sri Lanka. Against Australia, he gave away 16 runs in the first T20I and 21 in the third game in the 18th over.
In an ideal scenario, the bowling unit for the initial games could comprise Arshdeep, either Shami or Chahar, and Harshal. Shami or Chahar could bowl the penultimate over, leaving the last one for Arshdeep, who has mastered the craft of bowling the final over with very little to defend, or Harshal.
But Harshal's form remains a concern. His return to the shortest format wasn't memorable as he failed to make an impact in the series against Australia, bagging just a solitary wicket in three games. He conceded 99 runs at an economy rate of 12.37.
However, he grabbed a couple of wickets in the first T20I against South Africa. But it needs to be seen how he holds the fort in the Australian conditions.
Hardik and the right balance
Around this time last year, when the Indian team featured in the T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates, Hardik became a talking point because of fitness concerns. But a year later, he is one of India's trump cards. While his prowess with the bat makes him an asset, the team will expect Hardik to chip in with the ball in the middle overs.
Hardik isn't part of the South Africa series as the BCCI plans to monitor his workload. A fit Hardik will give India the cushion of an additional fast bowler.
“Hardik is a multi-facet star player. He is a genuine all-rounder, and I always judge an all rounder with the question – can he win you the game with a bat? Can he win you the game with a ball? Yes. Is he good in the field? Yes. So, you are ticking all the boxes. Great to see him back, and he’s a show man,” Lee had said about Hardik.
The next few weeks will be crucial for Rahul Dravid and Rohit. There are challenges on the field as much as expectations from the fans - after all, an ICC title has eluded the nation for the last nine years.