The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)'s senior selection committee has been carrying along a trend of throwing in a surprise every now and then ahead of a tour or a home series.
Monday was no different, as the MSK Prasad-led selection panel met in New Delhi to announce the squads for the T20I leg of Sri Lanka's ongoing tour, but more importantly, the 17-member touring party that will be flying to South Africa shortly after Christmas later this month for what promises to be one of the most crucial tours in Indian cricket in recent times.
Whether it was giving Parthiv Patel the surprise call-up ahead of the Mohali Test against England last year, the decision to give Hardik Pandya his maiden run in Test cricket ahead of the Sri Lanka tour in July-August earlier this year, or the decision to reward several youngsters with consistent performances in the domestic circuit with call-ups — Mohammed Siraj and Jaydev Unadkat being a few examples in this regard.
Much like the Pandya gamble earlier this year, Prasad and company have decided to give India's first-choice limited-overs pacer Jasprit Bumrah his much-awaited green signal for Tests, by including him in the 17-man touring party for the southern African nation along with other regular pacers in Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and the resurgent Ishant Sharma. Then there's the inclusion of Patel as the back-up wicket-keeper to Wriddhiman Saha.
Bumrah has had a meteoric rise to the top ever since making waves during his maiden run with the Mumbai Indians in the 2015 edition of the Indian Premier League. After an impressive run in the league, in which comparisons were first drawn between him and senior teammate Lasith Malinga, he was drafted into the Indian squad during the tour of Australia in the 2015-16 season.
Even though Bumrah shaped himself into a fantastic bowler in the limited-overs scenario, where his toe-crushing yorkers and slew of slow deliveries make him one of the most lethal death bowlers, and one of the top pacers in the modern-day game, there were questions that were always asked about his place in the Test side.
Given that Test cricket is a different ball-game altogether with its fitness levels and requirements of patience, as well as the fitness issues that persist for the Gujarat pacer — the primary source of which is his slingy action — were some of the factors that went against him when it came to donning whites.
In picking Bumrah, however, the selectors have continued to send out messages of hope and support to the young talent in the domestic structure as well as those on the fringe, that rewards will come their way even for tours as crucial as this. It is also a healthy trend to be followed for the Indian cricket team, which is on top of the Test rankings and is considered one of the most professional outfits in the modern-day game. This also sends out a message to the seniors in the side to not take their spots for granted, as these are timely reminders of the bench strength. This thereby ensures that all team members are on their toes all the time.
While Patel's chances of keeping the stumps in the tour look very bleak, given the way Saha has established himself after MS Dhoni's exit from the Test format, Bumrah still very much remains on the cards as far as experimenting about with the bowling unit is concerned. The youngster, who turns 24 on the scheduled final day of the ongoing third Test against Sri Lanka in New Delhi, has a decent average of 25 and strikes one every 10 overs. He even bowled himself to the 'Man of the Match' award in his last First-Class appearance, which happened to be the semi-final of the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy.
"With regards to Bumrah, if you see his performance in the last 18 months, it has been phenomenal, sensational in ODIs and T20. Considering the his brilliant performance in last year's Ranji Trophy, he was an unanimous choice," said Prasad during the selection committee meeting that took place in New Delhi on Monday, adding that the nature of the wickets in South Africa would suit his bowling.
The rest of the South African touring party doesn't have quite as many surprises. There will be the usual juggling between the opening trio of KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay, with an intense competition taking place between them that doesn't reach bitter levels thanks to their friendship.
Kuldeep Yadav and Vijay Shankar, the latter earning his maiden call-up after the release of Bhuvneshwar Kumar ahead of the Nagpur Test, have been done away with, and understandably so. While Kuldeep has set himself in the limited-overs side alongside Yuzvendra Chahal, he still has some distance to cover before he can break into the Test side.
For now, South Africa remains a make-or-break tour for young Bumrah as far as his chances of establishing himself in the Test side is concerned. For all we know, his breakthrough into the Test side can add a new dimension to what is already considered a world-class attack. Let's hope a squad teeming with talent on the onset can finally achieve what no Asian side has managed before — beating the South Africans in a Test series in the Proteas' own backyard.
India Test squad for SA tour: Virat Kohli (C), KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (VC), Rohit Sharma, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha, Parthiv Patel, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Hardik Pandya.