The philosophy of team selection in cricket is interesting. It varies according to the colour of the ball. Balance is the key in Test cricket, where contingencies that arise over a five-day period have to be taken into account. In the shorter white-ball formats, a player’s disruptive ability is important. To rephrase the poet, one hour of crowded glory is worth a game without a name.
A 20-ball fifty, a runout against the run of play, or two wickets in an over can turn a match on its head — and players who are capable of such performances consistently are worth their weight in gold. There are only a few players in the world who would qualify as disruptors — those capable of stamping a short period of the game with their own signature — but those who hint at this gift must be encouraged by selectors regardless of their long-term record or record in the run-up to the World Cup.
The selector’s brief for a World Cup, is simple: choose the squad that can win the tournament. That sounds obvious, but often squads are chosen for other reasons even if some of them are statistically sound ones. There is too the tyranny of proximity, where the last-minute performance sometimes outweighs earlier consistency.
If bowling and batting figures were all that mattered, we wouldn’t need a selection committee at all. Feed everything into a computer and watch it do the job. Just as players change their game depending on the format, selectors too must do the same. In fact, as the recent Twenty20 series against Australia showed, even within the white-ball formats there are subtleties of selection that need to be acknowledged. T20 is more forgiving of failed attempts.
The selection for the World Cup has to be focused only on winning. There is no room for experiments, for building for the future or for sentimental goodbyes. The World Cup is often the culmination of a career, but if a player doesn’t fit in, it cannot be seen as charity for years of service.
The best selections are sometimes complete surprises, based on intuition, hunch and those intangibles that make us human.
Unlike in Test cricket where the ideal selection has remained more or less unchanged since Don Bradman articulated it nearly seven decades ago, the ideal One-Day team has undergone changes. In the first World Cup, the emphasis was on medium pacers who could keep the runs down and bat a bit (India’s Roger Binny and Madan Lal were the quintessential One-Day players). Using up the overs was of the greatest importance since 150 for nine is a better score than 149 without loss. Taking wickets – something Australia began with in 1975 – became universally accepted as a strategy only in the 1990s.
Selection also depended on the venue. By the fourth edition, the World Cup had moved out of England and into the Indian subcontinent. Medium pacers made way for spinners. In the first World Cup of the 1990s, the pinch-hitter was born, and the focus had shifted to piling up quick runs early in the innings and then again at the end, with preservation of wickets being the mantra in-between. This led to what appeared like a peace treaty between teams. The one batting seemed to say it would maintain peace by not hitting out too much while the bowling side’s part of the deal seemed to be to bowl spinners to rush through the overs. A 50-over match was thus interesting in the first 10 and last 10 overs, with everything else giving the appearance of marking time. The power play and fielding circles were introduced to make the game a continuous contest rather than one where everything happened at either end of it.
All that seems history now. In today’s game, the slog overs often begin from ball one, and a crucial element of the game in those days — the middle-order batsman around whom the team built its innings has disappeared. The last such player, Rahul Dravid, finished with over 10,000 runs and was for a time India’s best in the format. It has meant that someone like Ajinkya Rahane, a certainty in the old system, finds himself out of favour.
Against that background, and considering the matches are being played in England, what should the Indian team look like? (This was written before the results of the Australia series are known.)
The ideal ODI XI would comprise two opening batsmen one of whom is a left-hander, three middle-order batsmen at least one of whom can bowl, two all-rounders, a wicketkeeper and three bowlers.
Put that way, the 12 picks itself: Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Ambati Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav, M. S. Dhoni, Hardik Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Bhuvaneswar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ravindra Jadeja. The day’s conditions will decide if the spinner sits out or the medium pacer.
Jadeja should make the cut both for his experience, his niggardly bowling and for being the best fielder in the side. His left-handed batting is a bonus in a side that is packed with right-handers. This last factor also gives Dhawan the edge since his recent form has not been encouraging.
The middle order does not look very convincing, and if the selectors show imagination they might recall Manish Pandey, still in his 20s, still an outstanding batsman and brilliant fielder, and in form. Pandey’s age is important in a team which except for the fast bowlers are mostly in their 30s.
If that 13 make it, we have two slots to fill. Rishabh Pant should make the cut ahead of Dinesh Karthik as the second ’keeper and a batsman who can hit long and hard.
Who will be the 15th man then? Will it be Vijay Shankar in whose medium pace bowling the team doesn’t seem to have much confidence, or another bowler in wrist spinner Yuzvendra Chahal? Or a pure batsman in a team that already has seven bowlers? Perhaps a third opener. Someone like K. L. Rahul? We could see a surprise here. Pant can be disruptive, so too Pandey and Pandya — India need such players to get away from their overdependence on the top three batsmen. The balance in a One-Day team is not so much between batting and bowling or different kinds of bowling. It is between the disruptor and those who generally do what is expected of them. The latter are the backbone – allowing the former to fail occasionally.
Choosing an Indian team is not very difficult. Most people can get at least 12 out of 15 right. Sometimes that is enough. But sometimes it is the three outside that first pick who might make a difference, and earn the selectors a halo.
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