The big question every cricket aficionado in India would be asking is: How would Shikar Dhawan’s injury and consequent exit from World Cup impact India’s campaign in cricket’s prized multi-nation event?
Luckily, there has already been a dry run, so to speak, when India took on Pakistan last week. That match gave a glimpse of what lies ahead for India as KL Rahul, asked to don the role of an opener in Dhawan’s absence, came through in telling style.
It is intriguing that the team waited till they thought Rahul fitted the bill before they declared Dhawan’s injury was serious enough for his hand to be in cast till mid-July.
The news coming out earlier was that he would not be in a position to play for a couple of weeks, which translates into three to four matches, but could be fit for later matches. However, on Wednesday the word was official: Team manager Sunil Subramaniam read from a prepared note that Dhawan “has a fracture at the base of his first metacarpal on his left hand.”
It is possible they were aware that the injury was far more serious when they ensured that his replacement Rishabh Pant landed in England immediately, on 11 June. It was ostensibly as a cover for Dhawan, but actually served to get Pant acclimatised to English conditions.
Crucially, had Rahul not fitted the part of the opener, would the Indian team have risked pumping Dhawan with injections and made him play crucial games? That’s a question whose answer would never be known, at least in the immediate future.
Be that as it may, would Pant’s inclusion at the halfway stage of the league phase work out well for the team?
The first impression is that the team management, and chief selector MSK Prasad who is in England currently, had decided that they needed another left-hander in the line-up.
A left-right combination imparts a lot of pressure on bowlers who would need to constantly alter line and length. Any error could be instantly punished, especially when field restrictions of less than five fielders are permitted outside the circle till the end of the 40th over.
Pant was the obvious choice. The stocky Delhi batsman packs a mean punch and was successful when he toured England with the India ‘A’ and India teams last year.
Pant’s bat speed is commendable, thanks to his fast hands and low centre of gravity. This would come in handy in a quest for quick runs. Importantly he has scored big runs and knows the importance of strike rotation and the advantage accrued from staying at the wicket.
Pant’s inclusion in the middle order would also lend a lot of muscle to a team that thus far has relied almost exclusively on the hard-hitting abilities of Hardik Pandya to give the scoring rate a boost. At the same time, it would free Mahendra Singh Dhoni of the need to step up the pace as soon as he gets to the wicket. He could afford to play his game of grafting initially and later going after the bowling.
Dhoni, in fact, could be slotted higher up the order, at number four or five, according to the situation, and leave the number six and seven positions to young energetic hitters, Pant and Pandya.
This apart, if Pant is to be accommodated in the line-up, one of the two, Vijay Shankar or Kedar Jadav could be benched. Their presence allows the team the luxury of having seven players who could bowl when in reality the need is for just five bowlers plus another as cover just in case someone breaks down or is off colour.
Normally, Pant would get a headstart over Dinesh Karthik simply because Karthik is a cover for wicketkeeper-batsman Dhoni. Of course, in a pinch situation, he could be accommodated as a batsman.
But with Rohit Sharma, Rahul, Virat Kohli, Dhoni, and Pandya among the runs, it is unlikely that Karthik would be needed as a frontline batsman. On the other hand, it would be more paying to include a hard-hitting left-hand batsman.
There is no doubt that Pant, the batsman, could provide the team with the impetus which could alter the balance in a key game. But it is also important to realise that he is not a top-notch fielder.
Already this Indian team has a few stragglers, notably Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav. Pant, the fielder, would be an additional liability, especially if he were called to effect a smart run out or save runs.
But what indisputably works for him is his ability as a hard-hitting batsman. On his day, he could be a match-winner. Hopefully while acknowledging his obvious talent as a ball striker, the team, fans, and media would not put extra pressure on him.
The team management has been extremely smart in getting him early and giving him the breathing space to slip into the tight-knit team. Hopefully, he will be shown the same patience and leniency as he eases into the role of middle-order batsman.
Who knows, as his Delhi Capitals coach Ricky Ponting observed, he could turn out to be the X-factor for India.