One journey ends and another begins. The World Cup disappointment is past now. On this conveyor belt of relentless cricket, there is no breathing space. The World Test Championship beckons and then the World T20 next year. While the challenges are endless, they also give rise to opportunities.
For India, the focus now shifts to Tests and T20s. While the Test team is more or less set, it's the T20 code that India need to crack now. It also breeds excitement, though. The preparation for the World T20 begins with the three-match series against West Indies in the USA and the Caribbean (two T20Is in Florida and one in Guyana). It's a fresh start, the rift rumours have been swatted away and as India look to regroup after the World Cup, it's a chance for the fresh faces, comeback men and youngsters to impress in the first audition ahead of the World T20.
Indian selectors have made seven changes to the squad that played the last T20 series, against Australia at home, which has paved the way for the newcomers to stake a claim for the middle-order and bowling line-up. Delhi pacer Navdeep Saini and Rajasthan leg-spinner Rahul Chahar have earned their maiden T20 call-ups while Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey, Deepak Chahar, Khaleel Ahmed, and Washington Sundar have all made their comebacks to the T20 squad.
Most of these changes have been because of well-deserved rests to the established players — Jasprit Bumrah, Hardik Pandya, Yuzvendra Chahal, and Kuldeep Yadav.
Manish Pandey lost his place in the white-ball squads last year but his IPL and India A performances have brought him back into reckoning. Pandey averages a healthy 41.38 in T20Is, striking at 122.83. With MS Dhoni's future uncertain and Dinesh Karthik being shown the door, it's Pandey's chance to seal a middle-order spot. His promotion to No 3 for SRH in the IPL worked wonders after a poor start and he finished with an average of 43. He scored a century against West Indies A in the third ODI at North Sound last month.
Pandey, however, faces competition with Shreyas Iyer for that middle-order slot. Iyer hit two half-centuries in the West Indies A ODIs and averaged 62.33 last month and had a decent IPL averaging 30.86, but most importantly, he impressed with his captaincy and guided the team into the play-offs.
In his short six-match T20I career (two series) so far, Iyer has averaged just 16.60. After the home series against Sri Lanka in December 2017, he fell out of favour with the selectors. He was included in the home T20I series against Australia earlier this year but couldn't make it to the starting eleven. He also lost his ODI spot in February 2018 after the South Africa one-day series.
He, however, has performed consistently in the domestic arena and has openly admitted to being 'emotionless' after being ignored repeatedly. He also expressed the importance of having continuity in the side ahead of the departure to the Caribbean.
"If you are a really good talent, then you need a certain amount of chances to prove yourself and get acclimatised to the conditions," Iyer told PTI. "If you keep coming in and going out (of the team), it doesn't really set a good pattern for one's self and you start disbelieving yourself. If you are a great talent, then you need some time."
Well, with very few slots open in the batting department, Iyer and Pandey will have to make the most of their limited opportunities. The top four is more or less set with Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Kohli and KL Rahul occupying those slots. Rishabh Pant will occupy the wicketkeeper-batsman spot and then come the all-rounders and the bowlers which leaves one slot open for either Iyer or Pandey to grab.
It's also an opportunity for Pant to mature further. He averages just 19.41 with just one fifty-plus score in T20Is and has quite often come under the scanner for throwing his wicket away at crucial junctures and not finishing off matches.
The bowling, on the other hand, offers more chances. Only Bumrah's place is assured in the pace bowling department in T20s and more or less Chahal's amongst the spinners. On the smaller Central Broward Regional Park Stadium Turf Ground in Florida, if India decide to go in with three pacers, it presents a chance for two of Deepak Chahar, Khaleel Ahmed and Navdeep Saini to partner Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Bhuvneshwar, himself, hasn't sealed his place yet and this is his time to lead from the front. Khaleel Ahmed would be looking to get back into the reckoning once again with the left-arm dimension that he offers. Saini was one of the shining lights in RCB's topsy-turvey campaign in the IPL this year while Deepak Chahar was CSK's second-highest wicket-taker and third-highest overall (22 wickets at 21.90).
Deepak's cousin Rahul has been on a roll in the last few months with consistent performances in the IPL and India A setup with his discipline and guile. It will be tough to break into the team with Krunal and Jadeja already present. There is also 19-year-old Washington Sundar, who has averaged 16.90 with 10 wickets from seven T20I matches, waiting in the wings. But India might be tempted to go in with the wrist-spin dimension that Rahul provides which is different from the left-arm ones.
With small grounds, it will be a litmus test for these fresh faces against a daunting West Indies batting line-up.
The reigning World T20 champions, on the other hand, are themselves desperately searching for consistency in the shortest format. Since the 2016 World T20 win, the men from the Caribbean have lost 20 of 33 matches and have the third-worst win-loss ratio of 0.550 among the top-10 teams.
A batting line-up consisting of Evin Lewis, Shimron Hetmyer, Nicholas Pooran, Kieron Pollard, Carlos Brathwaite, Andre Russell looks ominous on paper but they need to achieve consistency. Since the 2016 World T20, West Indies have possessed the second-lowest batting average (18.37) and lowest strike-rate (119.36) among the top 10 teams.
Brathwaite is back at the helm after the England series where Jason Holder had taken over temporarily for World Cup preparation. The entire ODI squad was retained for the T20I series and they struggled to adapt. It was a series where they suffered their two heaviest defeats having been bowled out for 45 and 71. There have been plenty of changes from their last T20 squad and the conscious strategy will be to build the team for back -to-back World T20s in 2020 and 2021.
The pace bowlers will have to take up the mantle in the bowling department. There is quality with the guile of Keemo Paul, energy of Sheldon Cotterell and raw pace of Oshane Thomas. It's the spin department where they might suffer with Sunil Narine (if he plays) making a comeback to international cricket after two years (he last played against England in September 2017) and left-arm spinner Khary Pierre just three international matches old.
West Indies would be looking to hit the refresh button after a disappointing World Cup campaign where they collapsed in a heap after a breezy start.
Head to head, the two teams have won five matches each with one ending in No Result in the eleven encounters between the two sides. However, the previous time these two met in a T20I series, India clean-swept the series 3-0 at home.
The last time these two met in Lauderhill, India almost pulled off a record 245-run chase falling short by just one run. In the next match, they bowled out West Indies for 143 before rain played spoilsport to convert it into a No Result.
With one eye on gauging the performance of the fresh faces, the two teams will be looking to set the tone for the ODIs and Tests to follow on the tour and with very little to separate the two sides, the US and Caribbean fans are in for some real entertainment.
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