It has been a hugely successful 2019 for India. "One of the best years", said the Indian captain – only three bilateral series defeats (out of 15), a World Cup semi-final (which, for most countries, is a proud achievement) and 35 wins out of 52 across formats (more than any other team) sums up his analysis.
The year ended what has also been a supremely successful decade – one that began with India lifting the first two ICC 50-over titles of the 2010s and ends with the Test team having been ranked No 1, unchanged, for more than three years.
The caravan, of course, rolls on, and a new decade in international cricket will commence with India taking on two opponents they’ve seen a lot of; India faced Sri Lanka 66 times and Australia 73 times through the 2010s – that’s over 30% of the matches they played over the decade.
The 2020s arrive with a three-match T20I contest against the Sri Lankans – a side India didn’t once lose to in a bilateral series this past decade, winning 11 out of 12 such contests across formats.
A three-day break later, India engage in a three-match ODI tussle with the Aussies – a side that inflicted upon the Indians two of their three bilateral series losses of the past year, both shock wins in a limited overs tour to the country in March 2019.
Rohit Sharma and Mohammed Shami, two of world cricket’s leading performers of 2019, have been handed a well-earned rest for the Sri Lanka T20Is, but that aside, the Indian squads for these two assignments wear a quite strong look on the whole.
The key takeaways from Monday’s squad announcement:
Boom: Bumrah is back
If there is one man who has lit up the collective mood of the Indian cricket-loving public, especially those from the previous generations, it is Jasprit Bumrah. This is no disservice to the rest of his fast-bowling teammates, who together have redefined the notions of a ‘serious’ pace attack to people in their country and elsewhere – Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar have all been stirring and sensational in their own right; but Bumrah is the face of the Indian cricket pace revolution.
If it wasn’t reflected well enough, to anyone living under a rock, by the bare numbers, or the amount India miss him on their tough days on the park, it was evidenced, loud and clear, through Monday’s news of his return from a stress fracture of the back that had kept him out since the end of India’s tour of the West Indies in August.
When you think of Indian cricketers making comebacks from injury that become headline material across publications, the mind goes back to Sachin Tendulkar and every single injury that became breaking news in the country; it goes back to Yuvraj Singh, and his return after fighting off cancer; it goes back to VVS Laxman and his troubled back, and Virender Sehwag and his troubled shoulder.
But, with the exclusion of one Zaheer Khan, never have you seen such anticipation for an Indian bowler making a return from an injury-induced break. Indian cricket, and its following, is evolving.
Rohit’s rest saves potential Dhawan awkwardness?
Shikhar Dhawan had to sit out India’s last assignment – T20I and ODI series wins over the West Indies – after bruising his ankle during the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in early December. Given how well KL Rahul lapped up the first-choice opener’s absence, the mind had begun to wander towards the possibility of Dhawan maybe having to sit out for the near future even if he was fit again.
That doubt, in particular, seems an eventual likelihood in 20-over cricket, with the Sri Lanka series marking the entry into a World Cup year. Rahul’s numbers in the shortest format far outweigh Dhawan’s: in T20 cricket in 2019, Rahul averaged 50.48 to Dhawan’s 27.50, while striking at 141.96 to Dhawan’s 122.56.
Rohit Sharma deserves a small breather for the qualitative and quantitative volume of his game in 2019 – 10 international tons, five of them at the World Cup, a record fourth IPL title for Mumbai Indians. The decision to rest the Indian vice-captain for the T20Is perhaps also staves off a tougher decision (which might be needed soon irrespective) to Rohit’s opening partner across limited overs formats for India over the last six years.
In the ODIs against Australia though, with Rohit back in the fold, the Indian team management will certainly face a headache in choosing who to pick out of Dhawan and Rahul.
Injury roster: Fortunes turnaround for Thakur, Saini
Shardul Thakur and Navdeep Saini featured together in an international for the first time in India’s ODI series-decider against West Indies at Cuttack; this appears to be a duo quite united by the intertwining of one-another’s fates.
Thakur had started becoming a regular squad member for the Indian team in the second half of 2018, and eventually won a maiden Test cap against the West Indies at Hyderabad – only for injury to befall him 10 balls into his debut outing.
It was a lengthy period on the sidelines, and during the same, Saini lifted his Team India credentials by performing creditably in the IPL for Virat Kohli’s Royal Challengers Bangalore. It didn’t immediately result in a call-up, but the 27-year-old did fly to the World Cup nonetheless, as a back-up/net bowler, and a first look at international cricket followed during the away T20Is against West Indies in August. However, Saini, too, was rendered unavailable shortly thereafter owing to injury.
At the start of the recent home limited overs contest with the West Indians, neither Thakur nor Saini found a spot in the Indian squads. But injuries, first to Bhuvneshwar Kumar and then to Deepak Chahar, allowed both not only a berth in the squad, but an appearance in the playing XI at Cuttack.
Kumar and Chahar remain sidelined for the upcoming Sri Lanka and Australia series as well, allowing Thakur and Saini to retain their spots in both the T20I and the ODI setups. At least one of the two will be a starter in the T20Is, where Bumrah is the only other out-and-out pacer in the fifteen.
What goes around, does come back around.
Can Pandey get some games? Can Samson?
Since the start of India’s home season in September, Manish Pandey has been part of every limited overs squad selected by India. That means he’s been in the reckoning for a maximum of 12 international outings – three T20Is each against South Africa, Bangladesh and West Indies, plus three ODIs against West Indies.
How many matches has Pandey played? One – the deciding T20I against Bangladesh at Nagpur.
Pandey is, evidently, India’s first-choice back-up batsman for T20Is as they enter the year of the T20 World Cup. He’s merited that back-up role for at least a couple of years, but his recent numbers probably merit even greater reward. In the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, eight innings fetched him 314 runs at an average of 78.50 – and a strike rate of 164.39. In the preceding 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy, Pandey, despite not getting to bat in the knockout games, finished sixth on the run-scoring charts with 525 in nine innings – there were six 50+ scores in that, and the lowest score he was dismissed for was 48.
Oh, and he also happened to lead Karnataka to the title in both those tournaments.
That is the kind of touch that deserves a spot in the playing XI. If not Pandey’s credentials, India need only look at the perils of not having had ‘tested’ batting back-ups the last time they were at a global event. They will only be helping themselves for the T20 World Cup later in 2020 by according a chance or two to Pandey – and, if possible, the next-in-line Sanju Samson as well.
It hasn’t helped that all of India’s home series this season have been three-match affairs, and that all of them have only been decided in the final game, leaving no room for ‘experiments’. But once bitten, twice shy, maybe?
Hardik’s road to recovery
No, he isn’t back in the India setup, but Hardik Pandya could feature in three one-day games for the India ‘A’ contingent travelling to New Zealand ahead of the senior team’s tour to the country. If he does, Pandya will be playing professional cricket for the first time since 22 September.
The T20 World Cup might still be more than 10 months away, but there is, arguably, no player as vital to India’s T20 balance as Pandya – his absence has been felt in all three departments of the game, from the death-overs batting to the quick over or two with the ball to the gazelle-like work in the field.
More than eyes, there will be a ton of hopes pinned on Pandya as he resurfaces in New Zealand.
Pandya aside, Prithvi Shaw is part of both the one-day and the four-day squads for the India ‘A’ tour to New Zealand – could this be when the 20-year-old begins to stitch his own redemption song?
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