Time to chop, change and chisel!

Each of the roughly four dozen ODIs India is estimated to play before the 2019 World Cup should now be a step towards deciding the first-choice XI at the competition. Every selection move hereafter will be evaluated in that context.

BCCI Selection Committee Chairman, M. S. K. Prasad, is very clear about the Indian team’s selection process for the 2019 World Cup.   -  PTI

The one-day series in Sri Lanka should mark the beginning of a fresh chapter for the Indian team. With the 2019 World Cup less than two years away, it is time to begin building a side for the tournament.

Each of the roughly four dozen ODIs India is estimated to play before the World Cup should now be a step towards deciding the first-choice XI at the competition. Every selection move hereafter will be evaluated in that context.

India’s squad in Sri Lanka and chairman-of-selectors M. S. K. Prasad’s utterances on tour indicate that the focus is firmly on assembling a group for the future. The Champions Trophy was a sort of turning point for India, the halfway stage in the World Cup cycle. The end of the tournament was the right time to make an honest assessment of India’s resources and look ahead. It did not come as a huge surprise that Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina did not find a berth in India’s one-day squad in Sri Lanka. It has been reported that both players failed fitness tests at the National Cricket Academy but neither can argue that he deserves a place in the side right now based on form.

“We have identified some set of players who will be considered for the next 4-5 months and we will rotate them. After those 4-5 months we will come to a picture that these are certain players who will go on to play the 2019 World Cup,” said Prasad, after India’s 3-0 Test series win in Sri Lanka. “We have 22 to 24-25 players in mind. We will be rotating them and we will see how they progress. After a certain period of time, we will keep on shortlisting so that we can focus on them at least eight months to one year leading up to the World Cup.”

Prasad was also unequivocal that no exceptions would be made in the matter of fitness. “If I put my hand on my heart, I will say that after the Champions Trophy, we felt that we need to be a fitter and a stronger side, we felt that we need to raise our fitness levels. We are trying to fix some fitness parameters and...if someone fails to match those parameters, he will not be considered irrespective of who he is.”

It cannot be easy making a decision on Yuvraj because of his stature and his contribution to Indian cricket. He is still capable of winning India occasional matches with the bat — as seen in the defeat of Pakistan in Birmingham in the Champions Trophy — but on the field, he struggles. It was worth recalling him ahead of the Champions Trophy because it gave India an option for the short-term. But with his batting inconsistent and fielding poor he cannot be seen as a long-term solution. And if it matters, he is 35 already and cannot be expected to be better physically in two years’ time. It is difficult to imagine a place for him in the scheme of things at the World Cup.

Prasad denied that the door had been shut on Yuvraj, but he did not say he was an integral part of his plans either. “Yuvraj has been rested,” he said. “Doors are never closed on anybody. Everybody has got a right to play cricket. It’s their passion. They are chasing their passion. In terms of selection, we try to select the best possible team.”

Ravichandran Ashwin has figured in only 15 of the 37 ODIs that India has played since the 2015 World Cup. The team is now in favour of picking wrist spinners.   -  AP

 

Raina, on the other hand, last played an ODI nearly two years ago. At 30, he has time, and a good domestic season will bring him back into the reckoning. He will get a chance to make an impression at some stage — at least in the T20 format — but Raina faces much competition.

Dhoni’s case is interesting. When asked in Sri Lanka if he saw a future for the former captain, Prasad was non-committal. It wasn’t quite the vote of confidence we heard in May when he called Dhoni an “invaluable asset” and the best wicketkeeper in the world.

“You never know. We don’t say it is an automatic thing (selection) but we will see. We are all stakeholders. We all want the Indian team to do well. If he is delivering, why not? If he is not, we will have to look at alternatives,” Prasad said, on Dhoni’s future. “Discussions happen about everybody. It is not just MS. When we pick, when we talk about combinations, we talk about everybody. You will also see in time to come.”

Asked if he figured in his plans for the 2019 World Cup, all Prasad would say was: “We will see, we will see. The legend that he is, we don’t want to make it… but yes we have a plan.”

There is no disguising the fact that Dhoni is not the batsman he once was. He does not clear the ropes like he used to, and prefers to leave the big-hitting to other people while batting higher up the order himself. Dhoni is no more the finisher who takes contests deep before destroying bowlers. This is not to say he cannot contribute as a batsman. His 122-ball-134 against England in Cuttack was a sensational effort, while in his most recent outing — the second ODI against Sri Lanka — he carried India to safety in Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s company. But such performances have grown rarer. Dhoni’s wicket-keeping, though, continues to be excellent. The selectors have a decision to make, and a tough one.

Rishabh Pant is the obvious successor and had he made big scores for India ‘A’ in South Africa, the clamour for the 19-year-old’s inclusion would have been rather loud. With India scheduled to play home ODIs against Australia (5), New Zealand (3) and Sri Lanka (3) before the new year, it is likely he will be tried. Shreyas Iyer, who slammed a match-winning, unbeaten 140 for India ‘A’ in the final of the tri-series in South Africa, ought to be offered an opportunity too. Of more concern will be India’s spin bowling, which did not cover itself in glory at the Champions Trophy. The World Cup will be played on similar pitches, and India, which failed to control opponents in the middle overs in England this time, will need to find a quick solution. Sri Lanka has offered us a peek into the future, with the selectors rotating R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja out of the side. Axar Patel and the wrist-spinning pair of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav have been called up instead. 

“Having wrist spinners in the team is always an advantage,” Virat Kohli has said during the series. “You see teams across the world — they have at least one wrist spinner, if not two in their side, giving you breakthroughs in the middle overs which is very important.”

Ashwin’s future in the one-day structure looks bleak. Since the 2015 World Cup, he has featured in only 15 of India’s 37 ODIs. He averages 40.5 with the ball over this period, with a haul of 17 wickets. He has been a shadow of his Test match self.

That is one of many things Kohli and the selectors will ponder over during the next one year. There is much to do.