The roadmap is here, apparently.
The squad announcement for India’s cross-format tour to West Indies in August set in motion the next four-year cycle in Indian cricket — one which will culminate in their bid for world domination at home at the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023 in India.
Contrary to expectation, the Indian core will be making the trip to the Caribbean, with Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya the only regular members rested (aside from MS Dhoni, who had earlier sought a two-month exemption from the BCCI).
Still, the squads — limited-overs, in particular — see a heady dose of 'fresh' faces, from absolute newcomers to those making a comeback after a long spell out of the team.
Here’s a lowdown on six such players in the Indian setup for the West Indian tour, comprising three T20Is, three ODIs, and two Tests.
One of two members to have been awarded a maiden spot in any international squad, although he’s already clocked a fair amount of miles with Team India, Saini was part of the travelling contingent for both recently-concluded World Cup in England as well as the South Africa tour in 2018, serving — and impressing — as a net bowler on both occasions.
The 26-year-old, who hails from Karnal in Haryana, has caught several eyes on the domestic circuit and been the talk of the town for at least a couple of years now, thanks in no small part to his speedometer. Over the last domestic season, Saini consistently clocked 145 kmph — and went as high up as 152 kmph.
While he didn’t quite take full advantage of ‘A’ tours to England and New Zealand in the past year (13 wickets in seven games across formats at an average touching 50), the right-arm pacer did make himself visible to the wider audience through a penetrative IPL 2019 campaign, where he was easily among the better bowlers in the Royal Challengers Bangalore setup.
With Jasprit Bumrah rested, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami both having been picked despite a burdening recent calendar, Saini can be rest assured of a maiden India cap, be it in the T20Is or the ODIs (if not both).
The second of the rank ‘newbies’, and given that he doesn’t hold the travelling experience that Saini does from the recent past, no one in the Indian camp will arrive in West Indies more buzzing than Rahul Chahar.
The younger of the Chahar cousins will celebrate his 20th birthday the weekend the tour-opening T20Is kicks off, and while it remains to be seen whether he gets a straight look-in into the XI in the presence of Krunal Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja, the leggie’s year so far provides enough reason for him to be optimistic.
Rahul repaid the faith of the Mumbai Indians’ think-tank with 13 wickets in as many games during IPL 2019 at a measly economy rate of 6.55 — with particularly spectacular returns in the playoffs — where two outings against the Chennai Super Kings saw him emerge with combined figures of 8-0-28-3.
He appears to be going from strength to strength; the IPL success was followed by a rich haul of 14 wickets in two unofficial ‘Tests’ against Sri Lanka ‘A’, and the 19-year-old has also picked up two wickets apiece in each of his three appearances in the one-dayers in the Caribbean against West Indies ‘A’.
While the Pandya brothers have been split up in the T20I squad owing to Hardik being rested, the Chahars will get to be in the Indian dressing room together for the first time.
Big brother Deepak, who turns 27 in August, has been here before, although he hasn’t capitalised on his openings as yet.
The right-armer’s new-ball finesse for CSK has been a bright feature for the last two editions of the IPL — a combination of measured lines and wily swing has seen him pick 32 wickets over the course of IPL 2018 and 2019, while going at just 7.40 per over.
The 2018 season led to his maiden India call-up, for the T20I leg of the tour to England, but in his sole appearance, Deepak conceded 1/43 in four overs. His only ODI so far, against Afghanistan during last year’s Asia Cup, also saw him leak 1/37 from four overs.
In the presence of Saini, Khaleel Ahmed, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Deepak is likely to don the role of reserve pacer for the T20Is.
At number four on this list — and boy isn’t that number the talk of the town when it comes to Indian cricket! — is Shreyas Iyer, who is widely expected to be given a chance to make India’s most controversial position in limited-overs cricket his own.
While he’s only played six ODIs, and batted five times, an average of 42 from those appearances — which included flowing and focussed efforts against Sri Lanka at home and South African away — beg the question as to why he went out of the mix in the year running into the World Cup, and in a revealing interview last year, Iyer had also opened up on the disappointment of not being in the fold.
The sheer weight of his run-scoring, however, have brought the 24-year-old back into contention; five years since his domestic debut, Iyer averages a remarkable 52.18 in first-class cricket and a laudable 42.93 in List-A games.
He did himself some credit in IPL 2019, too; 463 runs from 16 innings is a commendable return from any perspective, but what surely would have been noticed by the selectors was the maturity to his run-making. A shot-maker, Iyer curbed his natural instinct in the presence of other dashing top-order batsmen to play the more modest role of anchor. The Indian ODI setup is in search of something quite similar.
Iyer’s challenger to that spot will be the more seasoned Manish Pandey — although there is enough of an argument to field both the skilled batsmen in the middle order, behind the acclaimed top-3 of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, and Virat Kohli.
Like Iyer, Pandey too has prior experience of reveling in national colours, having hit an unbeaten hundred to shepherd a successful Indian run-chase of 331 against Australia at Sydney in what was only his third ODI innings.
Instead of kicking on from there though, Pandey veered to the frustrating ebbs of inconsistency; 15 subsequent ODI knocks have seen him cross 25 on only five occasions, and touch 50 just once.
The Karnataka batting mainstay, now brushing the age of 30, did appear to turn a corner in the second half of IPL 2019 — after making 54 runs in his first five innings for Sunrisers Hyderabad this season, Pandey amassed 290 from his last six outings to finish with 344 runs at a healthy average of 43 and a busy strike rate above 130.
He’s still in his teens, but the incredibly-named Washington Sundar has already seen some ebbs and flows to life in the cricketing lanes.
He made his IPL debut before hitting adulthood, but won hearts and eyeballs as he kept a firm lid on the scoring after being given new-ball duties for Rising Pune Supergiant; in two subsequent seasons, the off-break bowler has seen his economy rate go from 6.16 to 9.17, and his average climb from low-20s to low-30s.
His T20I record, however, leaves no room for complaints: Sundar has scalped 10 wickets in seven appearances, while conceding barely a-run-a-ball, and was the Player of the Tournament in India’s triumph at the Nidahas Trophy (better remembered for Dinesh Karthik’s heroics in the final).
The challenge for the 19-year-old is the presence of two more accomplished spin-bowling all-rounders in Krunal Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja, but you would expect Sundar to still get at least one game out of the three T20Is. Can he grab his chance?
That question though can be asked of each of the six names on this list — can they stake their claims as India set one eye on the future after their semi-final exit at the 2019 World Cup? No one’s looking that far ahead, of course, because four years is a long, long time in cricket as in life.
But while Sundar, Pandey, Iyer, the Chahars and Saini will all be rearing to make their mark, they will also rest their hopes on one external factor — the rope accorded to them by the team management and selectors.
They may or may not make the most of the opportunities they may or may not get while in the Caribbean, but if there’s one thing one wishes Indian cricket to have learned through the diabolical ‘number four hunt’ of the last four years, it is the vitality of consistency —not just in terms of an individual’s performance, but also in terms of a team’s decision-making.
Remember the rope that was given to Rohit Sharma? Turned out to be one of the greatest long-term investments, didn’t he? The time is ripe to start considering blue-chip investments for the future.
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