Team India start the ODI leg of their encounter against Windies on 21 October. The Test series was always going to be one-sided, but it gave India a chance to unleash Prithvi Shaw on international stage. The ODI series may be a bit more evenly contested given Windies' prowess in the shorter format, but from an Indian perspective, the team will look to try out new players as they stand 18 games from the start of the World Cup.
When selectors announced the squad for the first two ODI games, Rishabh Pant's inclusion generated a lot of interest as some wondered whether Team India sees Pant as a possible replacement for Dhoni. India's chief selector, MSK Prasad was quick to clarify that Pant has been picked as a pure batsman and a backup keeper as MS Dhoni's position as India's number one keeper remains a "no-brainer".
The swashbuckling left-hander made an impressive start to his Test career with runs in England and against Windies at home. If Pant bats at number six, he will provide the team with some much needed firepower lower down the order, which currently seems like the only missing link in India's ODI juggernaut. Slotting Pant at six would also mean Dhoni can get a consistent run at four. Virat Kohli will also have the option of using Hardik Pandya (when he returns to full fitness) or Pant as a floater in the batting order to get some quick runs in the middle overs.
India coach Ravi Shastri has often talked about his team being super flexible with the choice and role of personnel, so having a backup for every position including the wicket-keeper, seems the correct way forward. While Dhoni remains India's number one stumper, team must have a replacement ready if he gets injured or suffers a severe loss of form during the World Cup, given its extended first round, where each team plays nine games to fight for semi-final berths.
Pant also has a lot to gain while being part of the dressing room as Dhoni's understudy. Adam Gilchrist started his ODI career as a pure batsman when Ian Healy was still irreplaceable in the Australian team. Gilchrist later talked about how sharing a dressing room with his wicket-keeping mentor helped in improving his game.
Some would argue that Pant's inclusion may make Dhoni insecure about his place in the team. However, a professional Dhoni would be the last person on earth to worry about such matters. Elite athletes who have played long enough at the highest level of sports know that competition is essential to keep them hungry and motivated to continually improve.
When Harbhajan Singh broke into the Indian side, he was very much the support spinner to Anil Kumble (remember he was bowling from the other end when Kumble picked his perfect ten against Pakistan at Delhi). Kumble was India's Mr. Reliable in ODIs throughout the 1990s, but in 2000s Harbhajan started emerging as India's frontline spinner in limited over games. Kumble took it on the chin and kept improving as a bowler even when some thought the sun is setting over his career. This fierce competitive streak didn't affect the team man in Kumble though. Despite missing the 2001 Test series against Australia with an injury, he was still there to help Harbhajan in the nets with his arm tied in a sling.
To make "Dhoni plus Pant" a winning strategy, the team management has to play an important role as well. Kohli and Shastri need to shut out the noise in the press and think of the next 18 ODI games as a chance for players to audition for the all-important World Cup next year. Letting Pant keep wickets in a couple of games with Dhoni playing as a pure batsman is something they should seriously consider doing. If Pant is indeed the backup keeper, then you don't want him donning the gloves for the first time in a world cup game. If that means Pant has a chance to emerge as India's first choice keeper even with Dhoni in the team, then so be it. Dhoni can still play as a pure batsman. You only need to see the dynamics in England side, with both Jos Buttler and Johnny Bairstow in the eleven, to see how this can work well for both the players and the team.
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