At India's pre-departure press conference on Tuesday, skipper Virat Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri were asked about another ‘India’ side playing concurrent international cricket. “At the moment, it’s happening because of the current situations with restriction in travel. You never know. In the future, if you want to expand the game, especially in the shorter formats, then why not?" Shastri said.
Given the unrelenting nature of the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing uncertainty surrounding its impact, the national selectors are open to fielding two India teams at once. A 20-man Test squad along with four reserve players has reached England for the World Test Championship final against New Zealand, and a subsequent five-match Test series against the host starting on August 4. Given the quarantine rules in England and Sri Lanka, India will field a new-look squad, without several first-choice players, in Sri Lanka if the three ODIs and five T20Is go ahead as scheduled in July.
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Sambaran Banerjee was one of the national selectors when India fielded two separate teams for the first time 23 years ago. A bustling ‘98 season posed a peculiar challenge for the BCCI in early September. India was scheduled to participate - cricket’s only appearance to date - at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Malaysia. The showpiece event overlapped with the Sahara Cup against Pakistan in Toronto. The CWG series, however, did not receive ODI status from the ICC, and the List-A games added to a burgeoning season that featured 45 matches (40 ODIs, five Tests).
Banerjee recalls the experience of fielding two India teams to play concurrently. “It was a completely new concept for us. Maybe, we did not have the right resources to work with to play two national teams,” he told Sportstar. While the Ajay Jadeja-led side crashed out of the CWG with a solitary win, Mohammed Azharuddin’s Indian unit, comprising the likes of Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Ajit Agarkar, was also blown away by Pakistan in a 4-1 series defeat.
The two-team experiment had since ceased. But cut to 2021 and the Indian men's team has a pool of talent that's paved the way for a squad that is always ready with able replacements. Banerjee says the selectors back in the day had limited yardsticks for choosing a team. “The Indian team has got to a level where it can now field two squads at the same time. But back then, we had to rely on just Ranji Trophy performances to pick the squad. Today, we have a strong system of India A cricket along with the IPL that has become the real game-changer,” he said.
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Youngblood at par with seniors
Former India wicketkeeper M.S.K. Prasad, who was part of the 1998 CWG India squad, oversaw the expansion in the country's talent pool during his time as the chief selector.
Prasad said his panel focussed on grooming the talent at hand for different formats. “With the volume of cricket and cricketers we have in India, we realised that we could get into the specialisation aspect of it and have players for different formats. We planned to create enough bench strength for the current lot. That is exactly what happened in Australia earlier this year. With seven of your main players out, the guys from the bench went on to win the series for India.”
He also highlighted the significance of a robust India A system. “Around 60 players from domestic cricket were rounded off by our panel based on their performance over two seasons. We further filtered it to 25 players and rotated them in India A cricket across formats. Say a wicketkeeper, and we have the likes of Rishabh Pant, Ishan Kishan, KS Bharat and Sanju Samson in the rounds. The filtered players, barring a few, have received continuous opportunities over two years. This is the system put in place. Getting into India A has also become a benchmark,” he said.
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Prasad also lauded Rahul Dravid for the success of the India A system. “Credit to Rahul as well. He is the best person at that level and has moulded the youngsters perfectly. Our duty was to give him the right players, and he has managed to do the rest.”
Sri Lanka tour: Opportunity for the wonderkids
India’s five T20Is in Sri Lanka would be its only international T20 assignment ahead of the World Cup in October. Prasad believes the limited-overs series proves an excellent opportunity for the fringe players. “Suryakumar Yadav is the guy to watch out for. Ishan and Sanju also have a great opportunity at hand. I would have also loved to see Avesh Khan (named standby for the UK tour). He has been excellent in the IPL, and it would be unfortunate to see him miss out on playing in either series.”
Another exciting pool of players springs up in the discussion. Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill - “the future”. Devdutt Padikkal, “if given the opportunity, would be a treat to watch”.
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The former selector rued the absence of such opportunities and awareness back in the 90s. “The skill level back then was similar to what we have now. But the confidence levels of the boys today are five times more than what we had then,” Prasad reflects.
“Simple example: first ball, Suryakumar Yadav, gets an opportunity to play in a T20I game, smashes one of the best bowlers in the world for a six. Or Ishan Kishan, the way he blasted the opposition (England) on debut.”
“I won’t be surprised if this young squad wins the series in Sri Lanka,” Prasad said.