Column | Indian bowling attack lacks cutting edge

Mohammed Siraj
It will be a toss up between Mohammed Siraj (in pic) and Arshdeep SIngh for the second pacer's slot. File photo: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

Shivam Dube and Sanju Samson, who are part of the 15-member Indian squad for International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup were dismissed without scoring in the matches in Indian Premier League (IPL) immediately following the announcement of the team. This was all the more surprising as Dube and Sanju had powered their way to the side on the strength of superb performances in IPL this season. Dube, who had scored 350 runs in nine games this year, was dismissed for a first-ball duck twice against Punjab Kings while Sanju, with 385 runs from 9 matches could not get off the mark against Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH). Incidentally by an even more stranger coincidence, Yuzvendra Chahal, the doughty leg-spinner, who fought his way back to the national squad on the strength of a chain of outstanding performances in this edition of the IPL, went for 62 runs in his allotted four overs against SHR.

One is certain that the selection committee under Ajit Agarkar has observed these incidents with some amount of worry and trepidation. It would not have warmed their hearts to see these three players, who were selected solely based on the form displayed in the IPL, suddenly appearing ordinary, in the immediate aftermath of their selection. One knows that cricket is a game where the unexpected can occur with alarming frequency and the T20 version is even more prone to shocks and surprises than the other variants. The simultaneous occurrence of poor outings by Sanju, Dube and Chahal shows how fickle fortunes can be in the shortest duration version of cricket, where even the best laid plans can go awry in the split of a second. 

What are the basic principles and policies that should guide the decisions of the selection committee, when it comes to picking the side for an international championship? Without doubt, the goal is to win the tournament and lift the trophy and hence the best possible team should be selected. The next question will be regarding the parameters of what constitutes the best? Here the most significant query will be whether selection is to be based on current form or must experience be given more weightage? This is the area where most selection committees are stricken by dilemma and the present one led by Agarkar is no exception.

It was announced by Jay Shah, secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), in February that Rohit Sharma would be leading the side in the T20 World Cup. This was a deviation from the usual procedure where the national selection committee decides who should lead the side and announcement is made by secretary in his role as the convenor of this committee. This announcement had come in the backdrop of Hardik Pandya being bogged down by injuries repeatedly, including during the ICC World Cup hosted by India last year. Pandya was a very successful captain of Gujarat Titans in the IPL and he was groomed to take over the leadership of national side in T20 Internationals as well, when his injury issues put a spoke in the wheel and led to the BCCI falling back on Rohit. 

Rohit and Virat Kohli are experienced campaigners who reserve their best for the big stage. No fan of the game will be able to forget the innings played by Kohli against Pakistan in the last edition of T20 World Cup. Hence, despite their advancing age, their selection will not give rise to any eyebrows being raised. Veteran Ravindra Jadeja, one of the best all-rounders in all versions of the game, is also an automatic choice, as is fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah. Suryakumar Yadav (SKY) and Mohammed Siraj have not been in great form of late, with the former getting back into action only recently after a surgery for sports hernia. But their vast experience and ability to come good in critical matches helped them to walk into the side. 

Rohit & Kohli
India's fortunes will depend a lot on skipper Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli's form. File photo: AFP/Martin Keep

Rishabh Pant, the wicketkeeper-batsman who came back to active cricket after a 15-month lay off following a car accident, showed that he has achieved reasonable form both in front and behind the stumps as well as peak physical fitness levels, which helped him get the nod from the selectors. Yashasvi Jaiswal went through a bad patch at the start of the IPL, but showed signs of coming out of it in the last three matches. Pandya has been a shadow of his former self, unable to generate the pace he was capable of earlier, while his returns with the willow have been marginal. But he retains his place and has been nominated as the vice-captain, probably on account of his immense potential and previous experience.

Arshdeep Singh, the left-arm medium-pacer, Kuldeep Yadav, the left-arm unorthodox spin bowler and Axar Patel, the left-arm orthodox spinner, have all been in good form with the ball in IPL. The squad looks a trifle overloaded with four spin bowlers in Jadeja, Chahal, Patel and Kuldeep. Kuldeep may prove to be the surprise packet as he has been bowling very well in recent times and his style of bowling is more unpredictable as well as difficult to pick. Though there are four pace bowlers, including Pandya, the attack, except for Bumrah, does not appear to possess the required bite and venom.

Is this the best possible side that can represent the country? The job of the selectors is a thankless one as there are bound to criticism over some of their decisions. This time too, there have been grumblings on account of Rinku Singh being overlooked and the non-inclusion of Shubman Gill and K L Rahul. Rinku was distinctly unlucky as he had performed well whenever he was given the opportunities. Further, he still remains the best finisher in the country, an area where this squad does not have any specialists. Gill was upstaged by the presence of Rohit and Kohli while the recovery of Pant and the current form of Sanju worked against the inclusion of Rahul. 

Rinku Singh
Rinku Singh was unlucky to miss out on a berth in the final 15. File photo: PTI/Swapan Mahaptra

Who all will make it to the final playing eleven? Rohit and Kohli should open, since they both perform this job for their respective franchisees in IPL. On current form, Sanju should take the No. 3 position, followed by SKY. Pant and Jadeja will follow at No. 5 and No. 6 respectively. At No. 7, it will be a toss up between Pandya and Dube, with the former having an advantage on account of bowling abilities and experience.  Of the four slots from 8 to 11, two will be taken up by Bumrah and Kuldeep, with Axar and Chahal fighting for the last slot for spinner while Siraj and Arshdeep will vie for the second pace bowler’s place. 

There is the possibility that in case the team management decides that Kohli will bat at No. 3, as he usually does in international matches, then Jaiswal may make it to the playing eleven and Sanju will be forced to sit out. Another option will be to ask Sanju to bat at No. 5, thus leaving Pant out of the playing eleven. This appears unlikely as Pant brings with him the X-factor, which few others can boast of. However, both these options will be extremely unfair to Sanju, given the form he is in as well as the fact that he has scored all his runs batting at No. 3 position for Rajasthan Royals in the IPL.

Sanju Samson
Sanju Samson has been in fine form for Rajasthan Royals in the IPL. File photo: PTI/Atul Yadav

The forthcoming edition of the T20 World Cup will be unique in many respects. This is the first time that this championship will be held in USA, who are the co-hosts along with the West Indies. Further, the number of teams taking part has been increased to 20, which provides an opportunity for many new nations to make their debut. The teams are divided into four groups of five teams each, out of which the top two from each will qualify for the Super 8 stage. The sides that reach Super 8 stage will be placed in two pools, and the top two from each will proceed to semifinals. The final will be held on June 29 at Bridgetown, Barbados. India are placed in Group A along with Pakistan, Ireland, Canada and the US. The marquee clash between India and Pakistan will be played on June 9 at East Meadow, New York.

India have not won the championship since 2007, when the Mahendra Singh Dhoni-led squad surprised the cricketing world. This victory was to change the course of not only the game but also the history of Indian cricket as it led to emergence of the IPL, which helped the country become the financial powerhouse of this sport. But, despite hosting the most popular championship in this version of the game, India has not been able to reproduce the magic that one witnessed in 2007. 

Crystal ball gazing is an hazardous act in any field of sports and it is even more so in cricket, which is renowned for its glorious uncertainties. A look at the list of winners in the past editions will show us that except New Zealand, all major cricket playing nations have lifted this trophy, with England and West Indies achieving this twice. So the field remains open and all the top sides taking part in this championship will fancy their chances of lasting the distance and emerging winners.

All the best to Rohit and his side in their mission to win back the glory of being world champions. And I join all the fans of the game from Kerala in saying a special prayer for Sanju as he steps into the biggest arena in this version of the game.  

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and  a senior bureaucrat)


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