The squad for India’s three-match home T20I series against South Africa was announced on Thursday, 29 August. The 15-man squad had little on unexpected lines, with MS Dhoni continuing to be left out of the mix and Jasprit Bumrah being rested.
Bumrah’s rest, arguably, has got something to do with the three Tests that follow the T20Is, which gain prominence as India’s first major Test under the inaugural World Test Championship cycle. But with the countdown to next year’s ICC T20 World Cup in Australia ticking fast, the shortest format assumes great significance as teams hope to set their plans (and personnel) in place.
The T20I leg of South Africa’s tour of India will be played out between 15 and 22 September, with Dharamsala, Mohali and Bengaluru hosting the games.
Five talking points from the 15-man squad named for India’s three-match T20I series against South Africa:
Can Khaleel/Saini/Chahar unsettle Bhuvi/Shami?
The standout decision from the latest act of MSK Prasad and team is the one to field an entirely raw set of fast bowlers for the South Africa T20Is.
Navdeep Saini made his India debut during the 3-0 whitewash of West Indies at the start of August, a series that also gave Deepak Chahar his second international cap, while Khaleel Ahmed – the most ‘experienced’ of the pacers chosen – has all of 11 T20Is under his belt.
But the move to field the as-yet unseasoned trio (internationally speaking) reflects how India have embraced their need of fine-tuning the T20I setup to stake best claim at the twin T20 World Cups coming up over the next two years.
It isn’t just Bumrah who is missing from the lineup; Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who was part of the team for the West Indies T20Is, and Mohammed Shami miss out too – while they are the senior claimants to the fast-bowling spots, both might start looking over their shoulders if their younger counterparts put in an impressive shift versus the Proteas.
Saini made an instant mark against West Indies, picking up five wickets in three games – including a match winning spell of 3/17 on debut – while Chahar’s sole outing in Florida was an individual success too, as he prized out the Windies top order with stunning returns of 3-1-4-3. Khaleel, meanwhile, remains a steady presence in the mix owing to his ‘x-factor’ of being one of few left-arm seamers around the scene in Indian cricket.
At least two of the three will play each of the games, if not all three – rest assured, Messrs Kumar and Shami will be keen observers.
Who does Hardik replace in the XI?
Aside from trusting their young pace stocks, the other most notable headline from Thursday’s squad announcement was the return of Hardik Pandya after a lengthy rest for the entirety of the tour to the Caribbean. Given Pandya’s run-in with injuries in the last 12 months, it was a wise choice to make at the end of a taxing four-month spell thanks to the IPL and World Cup.
Now that he’s back, there’s no doubt about the younger of the Pandyas reclaiming his spot as India’s go-to all-rounder in limited overs cricket, but something interesting happened in Hardik’s absence in the Americas.
India, so long accustomed to fielding only the five compulsory bowling options, finally looked liked realising the futility of that tactic in the crash-and-bang format, and went in with at least six genuine bowling picks in all three games – automatically increasing the quota of all-rounders in the XI.
Krunal Pandya and Washington Sundar featured in all three games, with Ravindra Jadeja taking the third all-round berth for the first two outings before Chahar cousins, Deepak and Rahul, made the cut for the final T20I.
By the looks and form of it, Krunal should be a guaranteed starter along with Hardik, which ostensibly signals room only for one out of Jadeja and Sundar.
Jadeja is the much-more seasoned campaigner, with the added benefit of being the best fielder in the country at the moment. But do India want to go in with two largely similar bowlers in Krunal and him? Or could Sundar, who was handed the new ball twice at Lauderhill – both times to instant impact – be given the nod?
Go spin-heavy for the Proteas, or prepare a pace battery for Australia 2020
There could yet be room for both Jadeja and Sundar, or potentially Rahul Chahar too, if India decide to hand South Africa a trial by spin – but that may not be the smartest tactic, for two-fold reasons.
Looking at the immediate picture, the T20Is versus South Africa are to be played at Dharamsala, Mohali and Bengaluru; none of the three venues provide surfaces particularly conducive to spin-bowling, with the short boundaries of Dharamsala and Bengaluru also making it a T20 death-bed of sorts.
Looking at the bigger picture, even 14 months out from the T20 World Cup, India will know that they are highly unlikely to field anything more than two spinners when it comes around on the start-of-season tracks Down Under.
With the Pandya brothers appearing to be quite a lock-in at numbers six and seven, what then becomes India’s ideal or optimal bowling attack to tackle the Proteas?
At least two out of Khaleel, Saini and Deepak Chahar are certainties, but could India consider fielding all three, giving them four pace options with the addition of Hardik? Or do you field only two of them, while also handing a berth to two out of Jadeja, Sundar and Rahul Chahar?
It will be an intriguing tactical choice for Kohli and co. to make, but the make-up of the squad, in this author’s opinion, makes it clear that the vision is more 2020 than 2019.
Is Rahul’s back-up role a two-pronged one?
It was made amply clear over the limited overs legs against West Indies that KL Rahul’s role is to provide back-up to the established opening pairing of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan.
Despite coming into the tour on the back of a run-laden World Cup after replacing the injured Dhawan, Rahul played just once in six limited overs outings, when Sharma was rested for the third T20I with the series already in the bag.
While it means lesser game-time, the perceived decision provides greater clarity to a batsman who was having to adjust to an unaccustomed role batting in the middle-order when he was picked among the final 15 for the World Cup.
In this T20I camp, though, Rahul possibly bears a second, potentially as important, role – that of back-up wicketkeeper – as MS Dhoni’s continued absence (what’s with that limbo, huh?) leaves Rishabh Pant as the sole full-time ‘keeper-batsman in the fold.
There is no doubting Pant’s spot in the lineup, but no squad these days can be made without cover for a position as specific as that of the glovesman, and there is, clearly, no other alternative as far as a back-up to Pant is concerned.
While Rahul may be looked at as a part-timer, his record while donning both gloves for both Kings XI Punjab and Royal Challengers Bangalore – in three seasons since he became a bit of a regular behind the stumps - is average of over 50 with the bat, while hitting his runs at a healthy strike rate in excess of 145.
How do Pandey/Iyer get adequate game-time?
Manish Pandey and Shreyas Iyer, for the time-being, appear to have the team management’s backing as the middle-order batting bets for both limited overs formats; Pandey got the sole position in the T20Is against West Indies with Iyer serving as back-up, while the duo swapped roles when it came to the ODIs.
While Iyer staked his claim in the one-dayers, possibly making one middle-order spot his own for the conceivable future with composed half-centuries both times he batted, there wasn’t enough opportunity available for Pandey to make a telling impression in the T20Is.
Fielded at number five, the soon-to-be 30-year-old was guilty of not making the most of his chances, as reflected by scores of 19, 6 and 2 not out – but with his number typically coming right at the close of the innings, there wasn’t much scope for him to alter the course of proceedings either.
With India’s top-three set in stone, and Pant likely to have the backing for the number four spot (especially after his match-winning 65 in the third T20I against West Indies), India might have to figure out an alternative route to provide Pandey, Iyer or any other number-five incumbent adequate time to settle into their role.
There might still be more than a year left to the World Cup, but a year can go by very quickly – as India only recently found out through their shambles of a number four hunt for the 50-over World Cup.