How do you tell that T20 international cricket is a peak priority area for the Indian cricket team at the moment? Simple: they’ve arranged for a three-match T20I series with Bangladesh — a side against whom they haven’t played a single bilateral T20I series.
Ordinarily, even in the off-chance that India had randomly scheduled a contest as long as this one with the neighbouring Tigers, one would imagine there would have been wholesale changes from the first-choice lineup. But cricket’s next major event — the ICC T20 World Cup 2020 — is now less than a year away, and that ticking clock reflected in the naming of India’s 15-man squad.
Skipper Virat Kohli aside, no regular starter has been rested for the three-match tussle (Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah are sidelined with long-term injury layoffs), and Kohli’s rest, too, comes after having been part of 48 out of 56 internationals that India have played over the last 12 months, in addition to the IPL.
That, however, doesn’t mean Thursday’s squad announcement was bereft of surprises — Sanju Samson was handed a chance to fight for the spot vacated by Kohli, while Shivam Dube received a maiden national call-up to take Hardik’s position.
Yuzvendra Chahal, meanwhile, got reinstated to the setup after having been left out for India’s recent T20I assignments — a 3-0 away win over West Indies and a 1-1 stalemate at home against South Africa.
A look at the primary talking points from India’s squad for the three-match series, which kicks off in New Delhi on 3 November:
Dube strikes big with domestic timing
While he may not have set the world on fire in his maiden outing at the big stage in this year’s IPL, Shivam Dube sure seems to have a penchant for peaking at the right time domestically.
A day before the auction for IPL 2019, Dube had smashed five consecutive sixes in a Ranji Trophy game against Baroda for Mumbai — one sleep later, he found himself in Kohli’s ranks at Royal Challengers Bangalore. Now, again, he showed himself to be in solid-enough form to merit a position as India lost the hard-hitting abilities of Hardik Pandya for the near future.
After a lacklustre IPL — 40 runs and zero wickets from four games — Dube’s run of performances (at least with the bat) have been consistent, and perhaps more vitally consistently improving.
Called up for the four-day leg of India A’s tour of West Indies, the 26-year-old twice bailed India out of precarious positions with a pair of 70s, the second of which was a blazing 85-ball 79 after coming in at 20/5. Both were eventually match-winning contributions. Having added another half-century to his tally in the four-dayers at home against the visiting South Africans, Dube carried his long-form confidence into limited overs cricket with significant performances over the last two months to pave the way for this ring from the national selectors.
From a total of nine innings (four against South Africa ‘A’ and five in the Vijay Hazare Trophy), Dube amassed 332 runs at a strike rate of 145.61 — blasting 27 sixes off just 228 balls.
The area of concern — and the reason why he is not a plausible substitute for Hardik as things stand — is his bowling. Dube’s career economy in T20s is 8.68, and he even leaked 8.27 per over in the one-dayers against the South Africans.
Samson: Yet to turn 25, but making up for lost time
That Sanju Samson is ‘returning’ to the Indian team is a statement grounded in a quite trivial technicality; promise is a word long attached with the Kerala ’keeper-batsman, and it had been good enough to earn him a berth for a T20I series in Zimbabwe in 2015 — where he won his solitary India cap.
After four long years, Samson gets a second shot. Guess what? He’ll only turn 25 the day after the end of this series!
The thing about Samson, though, is his ability to catch the eye is quite remarkable. Centuries are scored quite often in the IPL now, right? We’ve seen 16 in the last three seasons, yet Samson’s two 102s are regaled quite often. He added another gem to that eye-catching stock with his first List-A hundred this month — and celebrated by converting it into a double, finishing not out on 212 off just 129 balls against Goa.
Why, then, has Samson not been making the cut for the national side? Because it takes more than flash-in-the-pan moments to capture the attention of the selectors. Dig a little deeper, and you see where the concerns lie for him — and this is ignoring the issues with his wicket-keeping.
Samson averages only slightly above 30 after 88 List A appearances, and 27 from 142 T20s — not quite the numbers you’re looking for from top-order candidates (which is what chief selector MSK Prasad stated Samson is).
Even in the recent Vijay Hazare Trophy run, Samson wasn’t near the top run-getters despite making 212 in one innings; in seven more innings, he tallied 208 runs, at an average under 30.
The potential, undeniably, exists — but if he does get a chance, Samson will need to defy the trends of his own past if he wishes to stake claims for the Indian team’s future.
Pandey’s shot at a real audition
Kohli sitting out of a series at home isn’t the news most of the country would enjoy reading, but if there’s one man who would, it’s Manish Pandey; Samson and Dube might be the ones making most headlines from the squad announcement, but when it comes to breaking into the Indian XI, Pandey has to be the one leading the line.
Having lost his spot in the lineup for the T20Is against South Africa to Shreyas Iyer, he should slot right back in as the first-choice replacement for Kohli. It would be in line with the ‘protocol’ of sorts under Indian cricket’s present leadership — players who are part of the squad but not getting playing time merit a chance before new entrants.
It would also be the only way to do justice to what has been an astonishing period of run-scoring. After tallying 295 runs from eight innings in one-day assignments against West Indies ‘A’ and South Africa ‘A’, Pandey has taken the Vijay Hazare Trophy by storm, leading Karnataka’s charge to the final.
The Karnataka skipper stands fifth on the run charts going into Friday’s summit clash with Tamil Nadu, with 525 runs at an average of 105 and a strike rate of 108.02. The four not-outs haven’t been ‘average boosters’ — Pandey’s undefeated scores read 142, 67, 34 and 20, and all of them have come in successful run-chases. He’s only been dismissed for less than 50 once in nine innings, and that, too, was only after making 48.
There is a tendency to look at infrequent starters on the international level as ‘youngsters’, but Pandey, believe it or not, turned 30 last month. But they say batsmen come into their own in the thirties, and Pandey will be out to prove that adage as true.
Chahal vs Chahar: Leg-spin showdown?
Months after finding out that he, along with his wrist-spin twin, had been discarded from India’s T20I setup, Yuzvendra Chahal finds his way back into the scheme of things. He didn’t quite light up the domestic circuit in this period either, but with Ravindra Jadeja out as a result of being too similar to Krunal Pandya, a spot opened up for a spinner — and the think-tank has seemingly turned it into a duel of leg-spinners.
Chahal, of course, has proven international chops: 46 wickets in 31 T20Is, with his mighty impressive strike rate of 15.8 making up for a slightly costly economy of eight per over. But would it be fair for him to start over Rahul Chahar — who was drafted in, ostensibly, as Chahal’s replacement, but has only featured in one game so far?
The primary reasoning given behind the axe to Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav was their inability to contribute runs from the lower order, and Chahar certainly ranks above the duo on batting prowess.
That’s not to say the 20-year-old from Rajasthan is short on bowling pedigree. Chahar’s call-up to the Indian team came on the back of a strong domestic run: he took 13 wickets while conceding 6.55 per over during IPL 2019, and sent his credentials soaring northwards with a superlative display in the two playoff games against Chennai Super Kings — 2/14 in the first qualifier, 1/14 in the final.
He’s been well ahead of Chahal in the Vijay Hazare Trophy too, with 14 wickets compared to the more experienced leggie’s nine.
Has Chahar done enough wrong for Chahal to merit a spot ahead of him in the XI?
Saini’s pain: Thakur’s gain?
Shardul Thakur returns to the international fold after more than a year as a result of Navdeep Saini being injured; no one, probably, can be in a better position to feel Saini’s pain than Thakur himself.
Just over a year ago, Thakur had faced quite a similar predicament. After a handful of limited overs appearances, the Mumbai pacer was handed a maiden Test cap against West Indies — a debut that lasted all of 10 balls.
Thakur slipped in his delivery stride, badly enough to tear his groin. As a result, he also saw himself slip away from the selectors’ minds with the likes of Saini and Chahar making their way up the ladder.
It’s hard to conceive that Saini wouldn’t have made the squad if he was fit enough. Chahar, too, has been impressive enough in his brief international career to command a berth in the first-choice XI, at least till the time Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar return from their longer-term injuries.
Which means this window that has appeared out of nowhere for Thakur might be the briefest one; if he gets a chance, ahead of Khaleel Ahmed, the 28-year-old has to stand out to stand a chance of retaining his place for future assignments.
And finally… End of the T20I road for Dhoni?
Yes, saved the big finish for the end — quite like the man stated above did in his heyday.
It has been three months and two weeks since India were eliminated from the World Cup by New Zealand. It has also been three months and two weeks since MS Dhoni last wore India colours.
It’s been a period of constant confusion, and daily dilly-dallying. Is he retiring? When is he retiring? Why is he not in any Indian squads? How long a period of ‘absence’ has he been allowed?
This debate even made for the first bouncer Sourav Ganguly had to duck in his new stint as BCCI president. While Ganguly was unequivocal in his praise for a fellow former India captain, he did clearly state that Dhoni’s spot in the team was a call for selectors to make, and not him.
In his first address since welcoming his new boss, chief selector MSK Prasad gave the most definitive statement that has been delivered on the future of the 38-year-old.
“I made it very clear post the World Cup that we are moving on. We are giving opportunities to youngsters and see that they establish themselves in the side. With Rishabh Pant doing so well and even Sanju Samson coming into the side (as back-up wicketkeeper), I am sure you must be understanding our thought process,” said Prasad.
“Going into domestic cricket, getting his touch back, or thoughts about retirement, everything is purely his personal (decision). We've already laid the roadmap for future, I'm sure you can see in the way we are selecting the teams.”
Prasad added that he had spoken to Dhoni regarding his future, and that Dhoni “also endorses our view of backing youngsters”.
What will it be, then? Is he retiring? When is he retiring? Why is he retiring? Cue questions galore.
By the way: Thursday’s squad announcement, in all probability, was the last one for the current Prasad-led selection committee. Talk about ‘finishing’, eh?
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