There’s a farce being played out there with India’s wicket-keeping options and it threatens to derail a process that could take Indian cricket to greater heights. It could also end up being ‘more of the same’ with the ‘same’ being the unsettling days of wicket-keeping in the early 2000s.
Strangely, three of the wicket-keepers in the thick of things are remnants of that era, with the fourth, a younger and more recent inclusion, Rishab Pant, being left between wind and water.
In the early years of 2000s Parthiv Patel, although an early choice, was gradually eased out by Dinesh Karthik and later by Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Of course, when Dhoni came along, he consolidated his position and other contestants simply faded away.
But at some point of time, even Dhoni had to ease off. It was then that things became murky for Indian cricket.
The selectors, probably overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, fell back on Patel and Karthik, even as they gave an impression that they were looking ahead by giving wings to Pant.
Gradually, Patel’s selection was put on the backburner even as Dhoni opted out of Test cricket. Pant and Karthik were given opportunities to make their mark, but by all accounts, neither is really seen as a certainty.
It was in this scenario that Dhoni was dropped for six T20Is — three versus West Indies and more recently three against Australia. But, if cricket lovers thought they had seen the last of Dhoni in T20Is, they had another thought coming.
The selectors, a confused bunch for sure, resurrected his T20I career by choosing him for the T20I series to be held in New Zealand from 6 February. Dhoni, of course, was expected to be a part of the two ODI series preceding that, against Australia (from 12 January) and against New Zealand (from 23 January). But the recall into the T20I team was something else.
Here, the selectors’ confusion regarding wicket-keepers manifested in their choice of Parthiv Patel for the current Australia Test series. What they hoped to achieve by his selection continues to be a mystery. He is no spring chicken to start with. Nor is he such an outstanding wicket-keeper-batsman that he’d be the first choice in any Indian team. Yet the selectors bowled a googly when they brought him out of mothballs. Unfortunately for them, the tour management in Australia doesn’t share their confidence in him.
Dhoni, of course, will not be in a similar situation. He’s a better all-round cricketer. Besides, the chairman of the selection committee, MSK Prasad revealed in Melbourne that Dhoni had been told that he’d be rested for the six T20Is (against WI and Australia) so that more opportunities could be given to Pant and Karthik.
But now that there were just eight ODIs (3 vs Australia, 5 against NZ) between now till the start of the World Cup in England in late May, the selectors have decided to give Dhoni three T20Is too to ensure that he gets maximum matches to be primed in time for the big event.
The selectors have tried to play fair by young Pant by selecting him for India ‘A’ ODI matches against England Lions. But it is not the same thing.
Pant’s fearless batting can be a boon in T20 cricket. He could be an asset in ODI cricket too, especially as he hits the ball hard and long. He too deserves many more opportunities.
It is obvious that the selectors believe Dhoni would be a key component of the Indian team for the 50-overs ICC World Cup campaign and as such want to give him every opportunity to get into top shape with his batting and keeping.
But they also need to keep their options open. While Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli could be expected to keep the top order firing, India’s fortunes would depend on how well they handle the middle overs. Pant, a natural striker of the ball, could be an asset as a pinch-hitter or an impact player during the middle overs. Thus, he too should be given every opportunity to get his confidence level up. Playing T20Is would be one way to get that confidence going.
The recall of Dhoni, even if it is only for three T20Is, will disrupt Pant’s growth and development path.
Certainly, there is nothing new to be learned from Dhoni’s keeping or batting. If anything, he probably needs to get a lot more aggressive with his batting. Of late, there is a perceptible drop in his strike-rate and finishing prowess and that does not augur well for India.
Dhoni, the finisher, was an invaluable asset. If he cannot play that role again, he’d probably be just another wicket-keeper who can bat. The selectors probably believe that his playing the T20Is in New Zealand would give him more opportunities to get back his mojo. But they would have done well if they had taken Pant too into consideration.
Much of cricket is played mentally. Unfortunately, the message being sent out to the youngster is that he is eminently dispensable. Surely, that won’t do much for his confidence.
Besides, there is also the issue of Dhoni’s continued utility that needs to be considered. While he could be an asset at the 2019 World Cup, it is highly unlikely that he could be an impact player in the 2020 World T20 tournament.
However, the selectors are not looking that far ahead. All their focus seems to be on the 2019 World Cup and they desperately want to give Dhoni, the finisher, every opportunity to get into his groove. Will this play well by India or be a throwback to the early 2000s? Only time will tell.