With 21 matches under their belt, India have played most T20Is among all nations this year. In this period, they have fielded 27 players, the most by a side.
In the five-match T20I series against West Indies alone, they tried 17 players. In the three T20Is in England prior to that, they played 19 players. The intention behind this high number of T20 fixtures has always been clear - to try out the fringe players in the bid to frame the most efficient squad for the T20 World Cup.
However, with the conclusion of the T20Is in West Indies, India’s World Cup preparations are set to enter a new phase. The 2022 Asia Cup provides a golden opportunity to assess the mettle of their full-strength squad in a multi-team tournament. It should also be their last T20I series/tournament before they have to announce their squad for the World Cup Down Under. Hence, the 2022 Asia Cup squad can be termed as a teaser for the showpiece event in Australia.
As anticipated, the likes of KL Rahul and Virat Kohli are back in the side. Barring Jasprit Bumrah and Harshal Patel, both unavailable due to injuries, India will field their strongest side in a long time.
Shedding light on the same, here is what we learn about India’s World Cup squad based on the Asia Cup selection:
Ashwin can feature in another World Cup
Ravichandran Ashwin’s selection for the 2021 World Cup after a four-year long isolation from the format surprised many. But his return made sense. Being the only conventional off-spinner in contention, Ashwin was picked to tackle left-handed heavy batting line-ups. Also, the tournament was held in UAE so India could afford an extra spinner. But the team’s poor campaign curtailed his return.
With the 2022 World Cup approaching, Ashwin made another return for the West Indies’ T20Is. In between, the only T20 cricket he played was IPL 2022. Ashwin snapped 12 wickets in 17 matches. He averaged 41.9 but picked wickets at crucial junctures. He also harboured an impressive economy of 7.5 runs per over.
The question is if Ashwin has done enough to board the flight to Australia for the World Cup. In three T20Is versus West Indies, Ashwin picked three wickets for 80 runs. He is an economical option but the strike-rate of 31.6 suggests he might not be a wicket-taking asset. The Australian conditions will also insist India on playing an extra seamer.
Ashwin’s selection for the Asia Cup hints that the management is eyeing him as an option for the World Cup. What works in his favor is his reinvention as a T20 all-rounder. Ashwin scored 191 runs in the 2022 IPL (average 27.3, strike-rate 141.5). Knowing India are looking at bowlers who can contribute with the bat, Ashwin holds decent chances of featuring in another World Cup.
Iyer out of reckoning?
Shreyas Iyer has been a part of every India squad this year. He passed every task with flying colours in the first half. In the second, he has slipped down in the pecking order.
Iyer mustered a breezy 64 in the last T20I versus West Indies. In nine T20I innings prior to that, he scored only 156 runs, averaging 19.5 at a strike-rate of 110.6. His vulnerability against pace was apparent and can hamper him further in Australia. He is selected for the Asia Cup only as a standby which is a reflection of his diminished World Cup prospects.
Meanwhile, Deepak Hooda has risen up the ranks in these three months. Besides his batting, Hooda can also deliver an over or two of off-spin. His all-round package has become a necessity in modern-day white-ball cricket. Australia have Glenn Maxwell, South Africa have Aiden Markram. Hooda can do a similar role for India which creates pressure on both Iyer and Ashwin. A good Asia Cup for Hooda can grant him the ticket to Australia at the expense of both these names.
Arshdeep here to stay
Among all pacers in contention for the World Cup, Arshdeep Singh was the last to get his chances. Delivering a player-of-the-series award winning performance in West indies, the left-arm seamer has leapfrogged other candidates in the reckoning. Arshdeep has nine wickets in his six T20Is thus far at an economy of 6.3, thus killing two birds with one stone. The 23-year old can swing the new ball as well as bowl accurate yorkers at the death.
Only three seamers are picked in the Asia Cup squad - Arshdeep, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Avesh Khan. India can play all three in the XI or only two owing to the conditions in the UAE.
From the World Cup perspective, Jasprit Bumrah is expected to come back while Harshal Patel’s return depends on the extent of his injury. If Harshal is able to regain his fitness in time, there will be only one spot left for a pacer between Arshdeep and Avesh. Presumably, Arshdeep is ahead at present but Asia Cup can prove to be a shootout between the two.
Pant or DK?
The time has come for India to choose between one of their many wicketkeeping options. India have tried as many as four wicketkeepers since IPL 2022, many times playing three of them in the XI. With Virat Kohli and KL Rahul back in the squad now, India have have done away with Ishan Kishan and Sanju Samson.
In contention for the backup opener’s slot, Kishan played 13 of India’s 16 T20Is in the first seven months this year. He scored most runs in the time period for India but as the silverware event nears, he has fallen out of the reckoning. It was evident in the West Indies series itself where the southpaw warmed the bench in the first four games. Samson, meanwhile, made it to the series as a replacement for the unavailable Rahul.
Considering six undroppable options in the batting arsenal - Rohit Sharma, Kohli, Rahul, Suryakumar Yadav, Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja - there is room for only one wicketkeeper between Rishabh Pant and Dinesh Karthik.
Since Karthik’s return to the national side, he and Pant have featured in three series together. Overall, there is little to separate between the T20I batting numbers of these two since IPL 2022. While Karthik has provided invaluable finishes at the back end of the innings, Pant breaks the monotony of right-handers in the middle-order. Jadeja is another left-handed option but his grim numbers against spin elevate the value of Pant.
The choice between the two will be tough but whoever gets picked in India’s opening fixture in the Asia Cup will most probably hold the upper hand for a spot in the World Cup XI.