Not for the first time, the Indian team management has yet to identify a settled squad as a World Cup fast approaches.
When the team was announced for the 2019 Cricket World Cup, there was a surprise in store as Ambati Rayudu was left out in favour of Vijay Shankar. Then chief selector M.S.K. Prasad justified Vijay Shankar’s inclusion, stating that the all-rounder brought in a “three-dimensional” flavour. That did not go down well with a miffed Rayudu.
The 2023 Cricket World Cup is only six weeks away, and once again, there is no clarity on who will don a key role. The middle-order slot is the most pressing concern. It is the injury status of Shreyas Iyer and K.L. Rahul that has caused this dilemma.
Both batters — currently going through the paces at the National Cricket Academy — are yet to return to competitive action. It would not be wise to rush the duo into a big event like the World Cup.
Until recently, Suryakumar Yadav and Sanju Samson were the front-runners for these spots. Suryakumar’s poor returns in ODIs, however, has raised suspicion that the Mumbaikar — a proven match-winner in T20s — is yet to adjust to the demands of 50-over cricket. Samson, meanwhile, has not done himself any favours with his inconsistent run. With scores of 12, 7 and 13 in the recent T20Is against West Indies, the Kerala wicketkeeper-batter has failed to impress.
Fortunately for India, there was a silver lining in the 2-3 T20I series defeat. Southpaw Tilak Varma stood out with a few sparkling knocks, giving hope that the unit has found a suitable middle-order option.
Tilak made 173 runs in five outings — the most by an Indian and third-highest among both teams. The Hyderabad cricketer — taking his first steps in the international arena — looked assured and comfortable at the crease. He displayed a maturity quite unusual for a rookie 20-year-old — going about his business in a quiet and calculative manner.
Tilak, who shot into the limelight as a consistent performer for Mumbai Indians in the IPL, has all the strokes. He gets into position early, and is unafraid to take on the bowlers from the get-go. Tilak reads the game well, making adjustments to his scoring rate as the team requires.
Praise from the head coach
The elegant batter came good with scores of 39, 51, 49 n.o., 7 n.o., and 27 — a coming-of-age showing that earned praise from head coach Rahul Dravid.
“Tilak was really good. He came in to bat in difficult situations and performed well. He batted with positive intent, played aggressively and looked to move the game along. Having a quality left-hander in the batting line-up makes a huge difference when we face different bowling attacks,” Dravid said after the T20I leg.
Dravid was pleased that Tilak can contribute as an off-spinner, as seen in the fifth T20I when he took the wicket of Nicholas Pooran. “Tilak also fielded very well throughout the series,” Dravid added.
Tilak received the backing of experienced spinner R. Ashwin, who believes that the youngster adds great value to the Indian XI.
“This is neck-and-neck with respect to the World Cup. So, will they (selectors) think about Tilak Varma as an option if we don’t have enough backups? Sanju Samson has performed really well in ODIs. But the exciting part about Tilak is that he is a left-hander and Team India is lacking left-handers. Jaddu (Ravindra Jadeja) is the only left-handed batter in the top 7,” Ashwin said on his YouTube channel.
Inspiration and mentor
Tilak shares a good relationship with Rohit Sharma, who is his skipper at MI. Tilak counts Rohit as his inspiration and mentor.
“Rohit Sharma has been a great support system for me. He always tell me to enjoy the game, and he helps me handle the pressures of playing international cricket. Rohit and Suresh Raina are my inspiration. When we were together at Mumbai Indians, Rohit said that I’m an all-format cricketer. This gave me a huge boost in confidence,” said Tilak after his 41-ball 51 in the second T20I.
Tilak is not one to rest easy on laurels, and is always looking to improve. “International cricket is not easy. You must be consistent to get sustained success. And to be consistent, one must maintain discipline both on and off the field,” he said.
Tilak received his India call-up on the back of two great IPL seasons with MI. In the 2022 edition, Varma scored 397 runs at an average of 36.09, before reiterating his class with 342 runs (average 42.88, strike rate 164.11) in the following season.
“The turning point in my career was my performances with MI. I’m here with the Indian team because of my IPL runs. I want to bring that same form and confidence to international cricket,” he said.
Dravid and Tilak have a bond that dates a couple of years before his ascent to the Indian team. “Rahul sir has been with me since my India under-19 days. He was our team coach then. He tells me to follow the basics and enjoy the game,” he said.
“I’ve spoken to Hardik (Pandya) as well. Hardik says ‘You have done well in IPL and domestic cricket, so just do the same things with the Indian team’,” Tilak said.
Tilak will next travel to Ireland for three T20Is. He is also expected to be named in the squad for the 2023 Asia Cup. A few more good performances will only strengthen his case for a World Cup berth.
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