T20 World Cup: India caught in a selection dilemma

The Indian squad during a training session at the ICC Academy in Dubai . — BCCI Twitter
The Indian squad during a training session at the ICC Academy in Dubai . — BCCI Twitter

Mumbai - Questions have been swirling about whether Hardik Pandya should get a place in the playing XI

By Ayaz Memon

Published: Sat 30 Oct 2021, 11:56 PM

India have put up a confident front since losing to Pakistan in the opening match, but have actually been beset by selection issues. The decision(s) of the team management on who to replace and by whom could have a strong bearing in tonight’s match against New Zealand, who incidentally have selection problems of too.

New Zealand’s complications have arisen because of injury. Lockie Ferguson, arguably the best pace bowler in this format currently, suffered a calf tear just prior to the match against Pakistan and was ruled out of the tournament. New Zealand missed him badly against Pakistan, especially in the ‘death’ overs when his skillful variations in pace could have worked against big-hitter Asif Ali.

It could become a double whammy for the Kiwis if dashing and seasoned opener Martin Guptill, who got injured in that match, does not recover in time. New Zealand’s batting looked wobbly against Pakistan. Guptill’s experience in such a crucial game would be invaluable.

India’s difficulties are linked to poor form of a couple of key players. To be fair, not many players shone in the 10-wicket rout by Pakistan in the opening match — Virat Kohli and Rishabh Pant were the only ones to get some runs — attention for change (if needed) has settled on Hardik Pandya and Bhuvneshwar Kumar.

Neither had a successful IPL. Pandya, in fact was a major letdown, and without him fit to bowl, questions have been swirling about whether he should get a place in the playing XI since the start of the World Cup. If he’s not going to be used as a bowler, it affects the balance of the side. India are then not playing an all-rounder, but a specialist batsman, who is not firing with the bat either.

On the face of it, this makes his position in the team untenable on current form, especially when Ishan Kishan, in brilliant touch, is sitting in the dug-out. But a decision to bench him can’t be taken hastily. Pandya’s match-winning talent, particularly in the T20 format, has been demonstrated so often that it is a risk also to not play him!

Seized of this, the team management has delayed taking a call, hoping Pandya will start bowling sooner rather than later. The defeat against Pakistan has precipitated the issue. In the week since, Pandya has been turning his arm over in the nets. If he can bowl even two overs at full tilt, he might be able to retain his place.

All bowlers were hammered by Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan. In fact, Mohammed Shami conceded the most runs, so it may seem a tad unfair that Bhuvneshwar’s place has come under scrutiny. However, this is not because of one wicket-less match, rather clubbed together with a below par season for Sunrisers Hyderabad.

Unlike him, Jasprit Bumrah and Shami, who played in the first match, were among wickets in the league. Bhuvneshwar hasn’t been pulling his weight with the bat either, which is why Shardul Thakur — who has been successful with ball and bat in the last year or so — has risen as a serious challenger for his place, unless the team management decides on a third spinner like R Ashwin.

These couple of selections, however, are not the only problems India confront. Openers Rohit Sharma and K L Rahul and No.4 Suryakumar Yadav were snuffed out early by Pakistan, leaving the team tottering. India huffed and puffed to just beyond 150. Ineffective bowling, including by Bumrah, Shami, Ravindra Jadeja and Varun Chakravarthy, saw Pakistan reach the target with a lot to spare.

New Zealand, in fact, put up a more intense fight against Pakistan, defending a low score with skill and determination till Asif Ali smashed Tim Southee all over the ground in one over to clinch the issue. While the Kiwis lost, they were not routed like India.

New Zealand’s top order, if Guptill doesn’t play, and with Kane Williamson still seeking his best form, is not intimidating. What the Kiwis do have is a bunch of all-rounders who make vital contributions with bat and ball, a balanced attack and their credentials in fielding brook no comparison.

On paper, the Indian team, especially the batting, looks stronger. Past record in T20 cricket favours India too. But this is a doughty, ambitious New Zealand side which has traced a wonderful trajectory of rise in every format over the past five-six years. Defeat to them in the semifinal of the of the 2019 ODI World Cup and, more recently, the final of the World Test Championship, will still be fresh in Kohli’s mind.

India will have to be at their best, or be pushed to the brink of ouster from this tournament.

Ayaz Memon is an Indian sports writer and commentator

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