Hardik Pandya can legitimately double up as the third seamer in the XI
The 87 against Pakistan — walking in at 66/4 — might be Hardik Pandya’s most noteworthy contribution in Asia Cup 2023, but, more than Hardik’s batting, it is his bowling that’s emerged as the biggest positive for the side leading into the World Cup. Hardik’s usefulness with the ball has never been in question, but in this Asia Cup, the 29-year-old arguably bowled the best he ever has in an Indian jersey in white-ball cricket.
So impressive was Hardik Pandya, the bowler in this Asia Cup, that he might just have opened up the genuine possibility of operating as the third seamer in the XI in the World Cup in not just a few games, but a majority of the matches.
In the five matches he played in Asia Cup 2023, the all-rounder sent down 124 balls in total and finished with 6 wickets at an economy of 3.3. He bowled only a solitary over in the powerplay but executed his role of being a middle-over specialist to perfection, taking four wickets in the 11-40 phase at an astonishing E.R of 2.6.
Hardik, much like Shardul Thakur, has always had the knack of picking up wickets (and breaking partnerships), but in this Asia Cup, he did more than just that: he tested the batters relentlessly and displayed never-seen-before control and consistency.
Hardik turning into a reliable (near) 10-over option is huge for team India heading into the World Cup, for they can now fearlessly commit to the ‘three spinners’ strategy at venues like Chennai and Lucknow without being concerned about lack of depth and firepower on the pace front.
No concerns whatsoever about Bumrah and Rahul’s fitness
Both Jasprit Bumrah and KL Rahul were always going to walk into the starting XI once they recovered, but the question heading into this Asia Cup was whether the duo were actually match-fit enough. Whether they'd be able to hit their ‘peak’ levels considering both Bumrah and Rahul were coming on the back of a long injury layoff.
Fair to say that, within moments, both players made the entire world forget that they were actually coming on the back of serious injuries.
After missing the Super Four stages due to a niggle, Rahul made his comeback in the high-octane Pakistan clash in Colombo and showed his class instantly, smashing an otherworldly 111*. He instantly found his ‘best’ level despite playing no professional cricket since May, which was truly jaw-dropping.
More pertinently, he also ticked the ‘wicket-keeping’ box, showing no rust or discomfort behind the wickets. In fact, in the Super Four clash against Sri Lanka, he won the game for India as much with the gloves (two catches, one stumping) as he did with the bat (39 off 44 on a minefield).
Bumrah’s sizzling comeback was arguably even more impressive, considering he was playing a non 20-over game for the first time since August 2022.
Like Rahul, he hit the ground running straight away and struck on just his 14th ball. After tormenting both the Pakistan openers for two overs, he got Imam caught behind through a vicious outswinger.
Bumrah did not look back after that, as he ended the Asia Cup with 4 wickets at an average of 17.75 and E.R of 4.17.
Two irreplaceable x-factor players being 100% fit and in full form is a huge blessing for Rohit Sharma’s side, leading into the World Cup.
Kuldeep Yadav is indispensable
One thing became very certain in this Asia Cup — the fact that Kuldeep Yadav is all but certain to play every single match in the forthcoming World Cup.
A month ago, we’d claimed that there’s a slim chance India might entertain the possibility of playing Axar Patel as the second spinner, in order to fit all three of Bumrah, Siraj and Shami in, but Kuldeep proved that he, if anything, is the most indispensable of the lot.
The left-arm wrist-spinner finished Asia Cup 2023 with 9 wickets @ 11.44 (E.R 3.61) and was integral to the Men in Blue’s domination.
All 9 wickets he picked came in the Pakistan and Sri Lanka Super Four clashes, and he inflicted a different kind of damage in each contest: while he delivered the ‘KO punch’ to a rattled Pakistan batting line-up, he arguably single-handedly bowled India to victory in a low-scoring thriller against the Lankans. Defending 214 on an extremely dry surface, he sent the in-form Samarawickrama and Asalanka — both SL’s best players of spin — packing.
Kuldeep ruled the middle overs to the extent that he was responsible for 50% of the wickets picked by Indian spinners in overs 11-40 in Asia Cup 2023.
More satisfyingly from a personal standpoint, he thrived equally against both lefties and righties.
Kuldeep’s void was evident in the Bangladesh clash for which he was rested. There, India conceded 144 runs in overs 11-40 despite having a headstart with the ball, with both Axar and Jadeja getting taken apart by Shakib Al Hasan. They lacked variety and penetration and that eventually ended up proving fatal, as Bangladesh got over the line.
Axar impressed with the bat but had a very under-par series with the ball, taking a solitary wicket at an average of 76.00. He's now averaging 49.66 with the ball across his last 10 ODIs and has pretty much bowled himself out of contention for being a 'second spinner'.
Kuldeep entered the Asia Cup as a starter, but he’s exiting it as an indispensable commodity.
Shreyas Iyer is no longer in India’s best XI — he could potentially even miss out on the WC squad
Asia Cup 2023 was supposed to be the tournament where Shreyas Iyer took his rightful No.4 place back, but a series of unfortunate events (and otherwise) have left the 28-year-old in limbo just weeks ahead of the World Cup.
After an encouraging cameo against Pakistan (a very brief one, it has to be said), Iyer sustained a back spasm that kept him out of the following couple of matches (and subsequently the rest of the tournament). To his dismay, both Ishan Kishan and Rahul ended up impressing big time in this little window.
While Rahul struck an unbeaten ton against Pakistan and followed it up with a crucial 39 against Sri Lanka, Kishan played the best knock of his white-ball career in Pallekele against Babar Azam’s side, compiling a remarkably measured and mature 82 under serious pressure (India were 66/4 at one point).
Rahul was always expected to be in the XI, but Kishan’s form has made things complicated for Iyer. Not only has Kishan made himself undroppable through the sheer volume of runs he’s scored - averaging 54.90 in his last 7 innings - he brings some much-needed left-handedness to the middle-order.
It certainly proved to be a significant point of difference against Pakistan, where Kishan took 53 runs off Shadab and Nawaz, two bowlers who could have been a headache for a RHB-heavy batting line-up. Add to this the fact that Kishan is a wicket-keeper and a floater (who could open if needed), the 25-year-old becomes an irresistible pick when in form.
Iyer, then, seems to have lost his spot in the XI but things could get a lot worse for him if he does not recover in time for the Australia ODIs. Should the back continue to trouble him, he could just end up losing his spot to someone like Tilak Varma, who again provides the team more versatility due to his left-handedness and his ability to bowl off-spin.
Dropping Iyer while retaining Suryakumar Yadav might look cruel, but the team can rely upon SKY’s fitness, something they haven’t been able to do when it comes to Iyer.
Mohammed Shami is the last seamer in the pecking order
For Gareth Bale, it’s ‘Wales, Golf and Real Madrid.’
For team India, it’s Bumrah, Siraj, Shardul and then finally Shami.
Again, much like Iyer, for little fault of his, Mohammed Shami has somehow lost his spot in the starting XI.
In the first game of this Asia Cup, India made it clear that they did not consider Shami a starter, and the showings of Hardik Pandya and Shardul Thakur have further dented the 33-year-old’s chances of being a first-choice pick.
We already spoke about Hardik, but equally impressive with the ball in this Asia Cup was Shardul. Heading into this tournament, there were fears that India could end up ‘compromising’ on the bowling front by picking Shardul, but the Mumbaikar proved that he, too, is a more-than-capable third seamer, picking 5 wickets at an average of 21.40.
Against Pakistan, took the big wicket of Rizwan, but he saved his best for Bangladesh, picking three crucial wickets, including breaking the 101-run stand between Shakib and Hridoy.
Shardul, of course, was expensive in Asia Cup 2023 (E.R 5.94, the worst among India bowlers) but Pandya going up a level as a seamer means that India will likely back Shardul over Shami even if he leaks runs, purely due to the fact that he offers invaluable batting depth.
Not too long ago, Shami was seen as the ‘spearhead’ in the absence of Bumrah, but he now looks unlikely to play more than a handful of matches in the World Cup.