Andre Agassi, in his autobiography ‘Open’, recounts how his mother would love doing jigsaw puzzles. It was a reflection of her calm, orderly nature, in complete contrast to the walking conflict-zone that was his father. But Agassi himself saw no solace in jigsaws: “All that fractured disorder, all that chaos — how can it be relaxing?”
Perhaps that is what Rahul Dravid feels like after the group stage of the Under-19 World Cup. His Indian team is faced with a peculiar jigsaw, one with less chaos, but a little too much order. The picture is half complete, with only a few gaps left. But more pieces remain than there should be, all of which fit.
India have played three different XIs in the three games, and all three permutations have given results. Now into the quarter-final, India might not yet have a clear idea of what their best XI is.
The top order is where India have the least worries. The top three, Prithvi Shaw, Manjot Kalra and Shubman Gill are likely to remain as they are, despite the experiment with Gill opening the batting against Zimbabwe on Friday. Gill is no foreigner to the opening slot; after not scoring big at home against England Under-19s last year, he was promoted to the top of the order for two games, and responded with scores of 138* and 160. Still, his presence at No 3 is both reassuring and daunting, depending on which team you’re on.
The middle order is more uncertain. One innings is too little to judge by, but Himanshu Rana did not look fluent in his brief stay against Australia, getting dropped twice on the way to 14. He was left out in the last game in favour of Riyan Parag. With Parag fit again, he is a certainty to play, given his form in the warm-up matches and his ability to bowl off-spin. But then Rana has the most First Class experience of all the players in the Indian team, and we all know how highly Dravid values that.
India re-jigged their batting against Zimbabwe to allow their middle-order some game time. Harvik Desai opened, Parag was slotted to come in at No 3, and Abhishek Sharma after him. “I sat down with Rahul sir and all the coaches. Harvik didn't bat, so we were giving chances. Riyan was injured and came back and played this game. It was a team thinking to change the batting order before we go for the quarter-final,” said captain Prithvi Shaw after the game. The plan only half worked though. With India being asked to bat second, and Desai and Gill seeing India home without a wicket lost, Parag may have to wait for the knock-outs to get a chance to bat.
Aryan Juyal, courtesy some runs in the warm-up games, pipped Desai as the first choice wicketkeeper against Australia. But Juyal, making his debut for India Under-19, was far from watertight behind the stumps, dropping one straightforward chance off Shivam Mavi. While it might just have been a case of nerves, he was replaced by Desai in the last game.
Having been a part of the Indian team for more than a year now, Desai looked much more assured with the gloves on, but less so with the bat. His unbeaten 56 off 73 balls was a graft, despite the bowling being far from threatening. Again, it could have been a case of nerves, with him effectively playing for his place. More decisions for Dravid.
The questions in the fast bowling department hinge on Ishan Porel’s fitness. Porel spent the lunch break of the Zimbabwe game hopping on his left ankle, the one which has suffered a bruised heel. Trainer Anand Date put him through his one-legged paces, and the tall bowler seemed to be in no pain. Fast bowling is another matter though, and Porel will benefit from India’s six-day break before the quarter-final. Should he return, Arshdeep Singh will miss out. Kamlesh Nagarkoti has looked more effective as a one-change bowler, so Porel’s return would certainly boost India.
In the spin department, Abhishek Sharma and Anukul Roy look to be certainties, given their utility with the bat and in the field, besides their bowling. It will be interesting to see if India employ three left-arm spinners against Bangladesh, who will be more assured against spin than teams from outside the sub-continent. Will India use Parag in the place of Shiva Singh, the third left-arm spinner? Or will he replace one of the batsmen? With Bangladesh having five left-handers in their squad, three of whom play in the top order, the former option is more likely.
Given that conditions in most venues have been pretty similar — flat wickets that favour the batsmen — Dravid and Co will look to pick a team that can take them to their ultimate goal, winning the final. The players on their part look eager to make an impression.
Vice-captain Gill put it best: “I think whatever XI we play it can beat any side. So the coaches and management should be under more pressure than us.”