Almost five months ago, India played West Indies at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai for a place in the World Twenty20 final. The Indian team was the firm favourite, but a fantastic innings by the newly arrived Lendl Simmons ensured a Windies victory. They went on to beat England in the final to be crowned World Champions for the second time, defying the odds and the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB.)
The presentation ceremony that followed saw many emotions, from Marlon Samuels answering his most infamous critic Shane Warne to captain Darren Sammy slamming the board after an inspirational speech about how his team gave everyone in the Caribbean a reason to smile.
A few celebrations and a lot of controversies later, the reigning World Champions are all set to play a T20 series against the Men in Blue again, this time in a comparatively alien place to both the teams – USA.
In early August BCCI announced that India will play a two-match series in Florida against West Indies, in a bid to reach out to new markets and audiences. This announcement came midway through the Test series between the teams in the Caribbean. “This initiative is path-breaking in terms of expansion of our great sport. It is our endeavour to make every possible effort to connect with fans in different parts of the world,” BCCI secretary Ajay Shirke had said of the decision.
The venue in Florida, Central Broward Regional Park has not seen a lot of international cricket. It has hosted four T20I matches way back in 2010 and 2012, all of them featuring New Zealand, while West Indies and Sri Lanka played two each. The Windies have won both their matches at the ground handsomely, by a margin of 56 and 61 runs with Chris Gayle top scoring in both. In fact, Gayle has an extraordinary average of 138 at the United States’ stadium.
More recently, the stadium hosted six Caribbean Premier League (CPL) matches where almost all of the current West Indian players featured. The ground seems to have an even record, with the team that chased having won three times while defending teams have won the same number of matches.
With such a record and experience at the Central Broward Regional Park, West Indies seem to hold a slight advantage over India in this two-match series. However, the team will be playing their first T20 match after the World T20 final, while the Indian team have played against Zimbabwe a couple of months back, although not with a full strength team.
In the meantime, the World Cup-winning captain Darren Sammy was axed by WICB. Sammy said he he was told he was being dropped due to lack of consistent performances. This was the cricketing explanation given to him, which may have partially been true, however the decision was expected, considering he panned the board for mismanagement and ill-treatment of the squad, after winning the World T20.
Carlos Brathwaite, who hit four consecutive sixes to take Windies to World T20 victory, was chosen to be Sammy’s successor. The 28-year-old, who probably must have been nervous about leading seniors like Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Marlon Samuels and the like in his very first assignment as a captain, said he was eased into the new role by Sammy. He spoke about how the former captain congratulated him and gave him blessing. “I haven’t officially started yet, but it has allowed me to transition easier from just being told (about the captaincy) to the excitement of wanting to get on the field and lead. It was a good vote of confidence speaking to Sammy, then I saw him at a charity event, saw some of the senior guys as well, all have been telling me positive things,” Brathwaite was quoted as saying.
Barring this little remoulding, the Caribbean side looks more or less the same. Kieron Pollard and Sunil Narine have returned to the squad. Simmons has also walked into the squad after his blistering knock in the semis and a decent run in CPL. He had made it to the team then after Andre Fletcher got injured. But now with both players fit and raring to go, it will be a bit of a headache for Brathwaite to select one of them. Evin Lewis, another opening batsman has been included in the 13-man squad, but will more or less find himself warming the bench, thanks to the presence of Gayle and Johnson. Other than Lewis, West Indian Test captain Jason Holder could also miss out from the 13-member squad.
The Indian team has also made a few anticipated changes. Only KL Rahul has been retained from the MS Dhoni-led Indian team that toured Zimbabwe. Rahul earned his spot after a successful IPL for the Royal Challengers Bangalore followed by consistent performances in Zimbabwe and West Indies. With Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina absent, there is a void in the middle order which Rahul has the ability to fill. The Karnataka batsman, who opened in Zimbabwe, could bat at No 4 or 5 in Florida. He might not mind that much given his IPL experience where he batted in the middle order for quite a few matches.
Ajinkya Rahane, who played in place of Shikhar Dhawan in the World T20 semifinal, may find it difficult to break into the team with the latter returning to form in the IPL and being instrumental in Sunrisers Hyderabad winning their maiden title. With Rohit Sharma occupying the second opener’s slot and the criticism of Rahane’s 'slow knock' in the semis, it is tough to see his name in the starting XI.
Hardik Pandya’s poor form lead to his omission from the squad as well and Stuart Binny has been included in his place. With the pitch conditions still being uncertain, Dhoni may be tempted to play Binny which will give him an extra bowling option. Mohammed Shami and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar have also returned to the squad.
Virat Kohli or Chris Gayle?
It goes without saying that this will be the most discussed topic of the series not only in the team meetings, but also among excited fans. While Gayle will lead the West Indies batting and aim to give his side the early momentum, India will hope that Kohli continues his exceptional form. Both teams' success will depend on how quickly they get the two danger men out.
Gayle has looked to to be slightly uncomfortable against off-spin early on, and Dhoni could start with Jasprit Bumrah, who has troubled the Jamaican in past, along with Ravichandran Ashwin. Kohli has been in the form of his life and the West Indians will look to curb the singles and doubles, which can make him impatient and force him to go for mistimed big shots.
As far as the ICC T20I rankings are concerned, India are on the second spot and have the chance to join the top ranked New Zealand if they win the series 2-0. However, if the World Champions whitewash India, they will move down to the third spot and Caribbean team will jump a place up. Both sides will maintain their rankings if the series ends in a draw. With a lot at stake for either sides, both would be itching to go out and give their best to ensure an improvement in the rankings. Can India avenge the World T20 loss ? or will DJ Bravo and co. dance to the tunes of 'Champion' song again ? Well, the cricket-starved fans in USA are in for a real treat in the next two days.
West Indies: WWLWW
Indian T20I squad: Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, KL Rahul, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (Captain and WK), Stuart Binny, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin,
Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav, Amit Mishra, Ajinkya Rahane
West Indies T20I squad: Chris Gayle, Johnson Charles, Andre Fletcher, Marlon Samuels, Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard, Andre Russell, Carlos Brathwaite (capt), Samuel Badree, Sunil Narine, Evin Lewis, Jason Holder, Lendl Simmons
Venue: Central Broward Regional Park and Stadium in Lauderhill, Florida
First T20I: 27 August
Time: 7:30pm IST, 10am Local Time
Second T20I: 28 August
Time: 7:30pm IST, 10am Local Time