Barinder Sran, Rishi Dhawan, Gurkeerat Singh, Jasprit Bumrah, Yuzvendra Chahal, Karun Nair, KL Rahul, Faiz Fazal, Hardik Pandya, Jayant Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav and Shardul Thakur.
Do you know what is common among these names? These 12 players have all made their ODI debuts for India in the last two years dating back to the limited-overs’ tour of Australia in January 2016.
A clear pattern emerges herein. First, the team management’s thoughts were to find a suitable seam-bowling all-rounder considering the 2019 ODI World Cup in England. Dhawan didn’t make a mark; Pandya did and solved a major problem.
Moving on then, focus shifted to finding a middle-order batsman, someone who could slip into the finishing role of MS Dhoni with ease. While Pandya and Kedar Jadhav have provided part solutions to that riddle, the major problem herein shifted up the batting order and became the No 4 problem. So you have the likes of Gurkeerat, Nair and Rahul lining up with brand new blue caps.
Beyond this, there is some haphazard experimentation for the B-team tours to Zimbabwe. Fazal and Chahal earned their caps there, with the two Yadavs — Jayant and Kuldeep — came into the picture later considering the horses-for-courses policy playing in home conditions. Two of them are relegated to domestic oblivion, while Yuzvendra and Kuldeep have bedded into India’s new spin attack.
The peculiar thing is about pacers who have been blooded in these last 24 months — only three. There is odd disparity between how things have played out for all of them. On the one hand, Sran is no longer in contention unless selectors pull out a surprise in their next meeting. At the other end of this spectrum, Bumrah has played 30 of India’s 41 ODIs since January 2016. It could have been more — up to 35 — if not for the rest afforded during the Caribbean tour earlier this year.
To his credit, Bumrah has basked in glory that comes along with clever changes of pace and block-hole accuracy in the limited-overs’ format. Arguably, he is the most valuable white-ball pacer in the business today, a fact that will be proven when Mumbai Indians announce their retention list early in 2018. That he worked hard to handle the new ball and forged a successful pairing with Bhuvneshwar Kumar showcased his willingness to adapt, something that should hold him in good stead as Bumrah looks to make the step-up to Test cricket.
For the time being though, let us go back to his partnership with Bhuvneshwar. This new-ball pairing came about through necessity. India were spanked by Sri Lanka in the Champions Trophy, and the three-pacer — plus Pandya and a lone spinner — ploy failed spectacularly. Umesh was dropped, and Bumrah handed the new ball. The rest is history as Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah used the lack of swing to bowl controlled lines in English conditions — a trait mirrored in the manner they bowl in the sub-continent. This control — with the new ball from both ends — is the basic element of this strike-force that is doing wonders for the 'Men in Blue'.
That they can master the old balls as well is only adding to their importance in the death overs. It is almost like the Indian team management has struck gold in finding two pacers that can bowl without bother whenever you hand them the ball — at the start, in the middle or at the death, for they will squeeze the runs and bring you back in the game. Without argument then, the Bhuvneshwar-Bumrah duo is India’s No 1 pace pairing across different conditions in limited-overs’ cricket.
So much so, they have now bowled together in 13 out of India’s last 15 ODIs together. Bumrah has missed only one game in this interim, stretching back to the tour of Sri Lanka, whilst Bhuvneshwar has missed two. One way of looking at this is consistency. But Indian cricket isn’t talking about that at the moment. Right now, it is all about trialling different options to choose from, whether with bat or ball. That is the other way of looking at what Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah have done — they have dried up India’s experimentation in the pace department.
Since that Lankan tour in July-August, Umesh and Mohammed Shami have only played one ODI each. Shardul Thakur has played two ODIs and is not even part of the limited-overs’ squad at the moment. The obvious question to ask here is if they are India’s second line of pace attack? Both answers — yes or no — are equally worrying.
If the answer is yes, then don’t Shami, Umesh and Thakur deserve more game time? While the latter has been sidelined since September for unknown reasons, Shami and Umesh haven’t played enough in the latter half of this year. It showed in their rusty initial spells in the first Test at Kolkata against Sri Lanka. Furthermore, they have never been consistent bowlers in the limited formats, showcased in the manner they were relegated to the bench during the Champions Trophy. Or indeed, after the loss to Australia at Bengaluru in the fourth ODI, as India reneged to their original plan (of fielding Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah) in order to seal a 4-1 series’ win.
Doesn’t this warrant more game time for the two of them, if not all three, in rotation with either Bhuvneshwar or Bumrah? If the team management is looking to save them for injuries ahead of an important overseas’ schedule, what about the former two? Don’t Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah need to be preserved as well, or are they a tad more expendable considering they are not first-choice pacers for Test cricket? At the same time, it is also important to ask if Umesh and Shami are removed from scheme of things — like Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja — should India look elsewhere?
It becomes apparent when you look at the T20I squad selected for the series against Sri Lanka. Mohammed Siraj, Basil Thampi and the return of Jaydev Unadkat — are they India’s intended second line of attack or the start of experimentation in pace options? Only time will tell.