The MSK Prasad-led national selection panel made a few bold decisions while picking the squad for the limited-overs leg of India’s ongoing tour of Sri Lanka. If one ever was to get a hint of the powers-that-be shifting their focus towards the 2019 World Cup, this would be one of them.
The axe falling on veteran batsman Yuvraj Singh — later, repackaged as being 'rotated' out — wasn’t much of a surprise, especially after the dip in his performances in the Champions Trophy earlier this summer as well as a less-than-average outing in the tour of West Indies; his bowling and fielding too taking a battering in recent times.
Once a part of MS Dhoni’s core team in their limited-overs campaigns, Suresh Raina, who was dropped from the ODI squad ahead of the 2016-17 tour of Australia, still has some distance to cover before he can think of returning to the Indian middle order. Maybe a trip with the ‘A’ team might do him some good in that aspect.
There were a few other expected changes in the squad’s composition, with seniors such as Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav getting a breather after playing important roles in the team’s whitewash of Sri Lanka in the Test series.
There was however, an omission that stood out as the player names for the Indian squad were being read out on Sunday evening. Delhi sensation Rishabh Pant, who made his international debut earlier this year, has been singled out as Dhoni’s successor, but failed to find a mention in the squad.
Pant's performances in the Under-19 World Cup, the Indian Premier League as well as in the Ranji Trophy helped back his claim of being the next big thing in Indian cricket. The presence of Dhoni wasn’t a problem in his selection in the two T20Is that he has played this year, as his ability to decimate the opposition at will had earned him a place in the side purely as a batsman.
Then why leave Pant out now, given the preparation for the next World Cup that seems to have already begun? There are various theories floating around; there are those who point towards his inability to grab the opportunities handed to him in the ‘A’ team’s recent triangular series in South Africa, unlike Manish Pandey and Shardul Thakur, both of whom secured their spots by punching above their weight.
There are also those who talk about the middle order being a packed cell, with a plenty of competition in place for every spot. With Dhoni oscillating between the number four and five slots, and the seventh position likely to be sealed in favour of all-rounder Hardik Pandya, there are just two slots that we can talk about. Going by the recent performances and the pecking order in the selectors’ radar, KL Rahul and Kedar Jadhav have better chances of getting picked.
This however, doesn’t mean a future prospect doesn’t get a call up into the squad at all. Pant’s ability to deposit the ball into the stands right from the word 'Go', and his fearless batting style are some of the traits that make him a gem of a prospect. However, backing such youngsters by giving them a slightly longer rope is an important part of grooming them for the road ahead. The continuous delay of his ODI debut must be a hard pill for him to swallow in that context.
The ongoing tour of Sri Lanka has turned out to be the drab affair that it was expected to be for so long, and that would have given the team management some room for experimentation. If the youngsters are to be groomed and tested in choppy waters for the battles that lie ahead, then no opportunity should go to waste.
The latest snub though, should only serve as a source of inspiration for 20-year-old Pant. India have a packed calendar in the coming months, and the young wicket-keeper batsman needs to keep an eye on his numbers in the domestic circuit to give the selection panel a reason to get him back in the side.