India have always had some astonishing white-ball players in their arsenal but often struggle to get their combination right in the major events, and are probably heading in the same direction ahead of the 2021 T20 World Cup. This is one of the major reasons why they haven’t won a single ICC trophy since 2013 despite making it to the knockout stage of every single tournament. This World Cup will be Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri’s last assignment as T20I captain and head coach respectively and the two would be desperate to end their partnership with an elusive global title.
For that to happen, India will have to make some important calls ahead of their first fixture against Pakistan on October 24. Can they find a way to fit Ishan Kishan at the top? Are they planning to go with only five bowling options, once again? Who’s going to partner with Jasprit Bumrah? These are some of the questions that the team management needs to answer.
Alright, let’s try to come up with India’s ideal playing XI before they start their campaign against their arch-rivals.
Open with Ishan Kishan
Indian captain Virat Kohli has already made it clear that KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma will open the innings, with him batting at No. 3. These three are tremendous white-ball players, but could probably end up costing India the T20 World Cup. Both Rohit and Kohli are slow-starters, while Rahul becomes a completely different batter when he plays for India. The 29-year-old understandably plays the role of an anchor for his IPL franchise Punjab Kings, but the moment he wears the Indian jersey, Rahul starts taking down bowlers from the word go. We got a glimpse of that in the warm-up game against England where he smoked 51 off 24 deliveries and put on 82 runs with Ishan Kishan in just 8.2 overs. Oh yes, we need to talk about Kishan!
The left-hander from Jharkhand is a 'confidence player' and could prove to be the wild card at the top-order. Unlike the aforementioned three, Kishan is not consistent but has the ability to demolish any bowling attack in the powerplay. Batting in the top-three since 2020, Kishan has a strike rate of more than 140. Meanwhile, Kohli, Rohit, and Rahul all operate at less than 130. On top of that, all three of them are right-handers and often struggle to score freely against left-arm spinners and legspinners. Teams like Pakistan, New Zealand, and Afghanistan will target them with the likes of Shadab Khan, Imad Wasim, Mitchell Santner, and Rashid Khan. However, India can prevent that from happening if they have Kishan at the top.
So, who do you drop? Dare we say it… on current form, it has to be Kohli. But again, you know that’s not going to happen. Then there is Rahul who is high on confidence and is at the peak of his career. The only one left is Rohit, who actually has way better numbers than Kohli. The other mistake India could commit is to drop Suryakumar Yadav and bat Kishan at No. 4, or they might even play him in place of out-of-form Hardik Pandya. The problem with playing Kishan at 6 is that India will end up with three left-handers doing the finishing work.
What’s more, Kishan struggled big-time batting in the middle-order in IPL 2021 but became a different beast altogether the moment he was asked to open. India could also use him at 3 but that would mean Kohli will have to bat at 4 and considering his strike rate of just 106.7 against spinners in the middle-overs (7-15), it wouldn’t be ideal for either Kohli or India. Furthermore, it would be a crime to drop Suryakumar who is hands down one of the best T20 batters in India.
What if Hardik Pandya doesn’t bowl?
It’s very hard to believe Pandya won’t bowl in this tournament. The 28-year-old didn’t bowl a single delivery in the last two editions of IPL and played as a pure batter for Mumbai Indians. He even refrained from bowling in India’s two warm-up games against England and Australia. When the squad was announced for the showpiece event, there were questions raised over his effectiveness in the playing XI and how it could badly disrupt India’s balance. Make no mistake, Pandya would easily fit in the XI as a pure batter but that would leave Kohli with only five bowling options, which could prove costly.
“Hardik is coming along pretty well, but it'll be a while before he starts to bowl. He hasn't started bowling, but he should be ready any time during the tournament,” said Rohit ahead of India’s second practice match on Wednesday. This was always going to be a huge concern for the Indian team management and that’s why they replaced Axar Patel with Shardul Thakur. They have also kept Venkatesh Iyer around the set-up, mostly as a “back-up” for Pandya. The all-rounder has only bowled 19 overs since 2020 and 17 of those came in the five-match T20I series against England in March.
The Men in Blue are going to play four of their five group games in Dubai, while the remaining one will be played in Abu Dhabi. And, you can’t have Ravindra Jadeja as your fifth bowler on these surfaces. The left-arm spinner did complete his full quota of overs in the majority of the IPL games in the second half but that was only because he had Moeen Ali as back-up. MS Dhoni used them very smartly, depending on the match-ups, but such won’t be the case with this Indian team. It was fun to watch Kohli bowl a couple of overs in the warm-up match but he surely can’t be your sixth option.
On top of that, Pandya has been in horrible form with the bat. The right-handed dasher only managed 127 runs at an average of 14.11 in IPL 2021. He didn’t get much batting time in the warm-up games either. Rishabh Pant and Jadeja have been firing in the lower middle-over but India desperately need Pandya at his best in both departments. The other option India have is to replace Pandya with Thakur but the latter is not someone you would trust at No. 7. Thakur is a handy batter but you would generally have him at 8.
India’s bowling combination
The Men in Blue have quite a few options in the bowling department. Jasprit Bumrah and Jadeja are going to feature in all the games, while it will be difficult to leave Thakur out considering he is the only one among the frontline bowlers who can “bat” in this format. India would also want to start with their mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy who has been phenomenal in the last two IPL seasons. So now you have only one spot left and India could go with any one of the remaining four options (R Ashwin, Rahul Chahar, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami), depending on the conditions and match-ups.
As mentioned above, India are going to play four of their five group encounters in Dubai and it’s highly unlikely that they are going to go with three spinners unless Pandya is fit to bowl. Amongst all the three venues used in the second half of IPL 2021, spinners had the worst average and strike rate in Dubai. If Chakravarthy fails to make an impact in the first few matches, India could bring in one of Ashwin or Chahar. In the end, it will all boil down to the match-ups.
Just on current form, you would pick Shami over Bhuvneshwar. In IPL 2021, the latter picked up only six wickets in 11 games at an economy of 8, while Shami claimed 19 wickets at a strike rate of 16.6 and an economy of 7.5. Both Shami and Thakur can be expensive but the two are genuine wicket-takers and if Bumrah, Jadeja, and Chakravarthy can keep things tight, the former two could prove to be the difference-makers for India. Considering the number of options they have, India won’t be too fussed about their bowling.
India's ideal playing XI
Ishan Kishan, KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma/Virat Kohli (c), Suryakumar Yadav, Rishabh Pant (wk), Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Shami/R Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah, Varun Chakaravarthy.