Under Rahul Dravid’s tutelage, the prominence of India’s A team grew by leaps and bounds. With Dravid now stepping into the bigger shoe, as the head coach of the Indian national team, there is a strong possibility that ‘A’ route will be the new dreamy route for the up and coming cricketers in the country.
India A’s last tour was in New Zealand, where they played two unofficial Tests and three unofficial ODIs, in what was the last indicator of the future of the national team. Since then, there have been graduations, with the likes of Shubman Gill, Hanuma Vihari and Mohammed Siraj all playing vital roles in India’s rise over the last year, both home and away.
They have had to wait for almost two years between two series. The question remains: what does the selection indicate for the future of Indian cricket, with multiple issues in the main setup?
While Vihari was expected to be named in the squad for the home series against New Zealand, the management dropped a bomb shell when they minimised the batter's efforts to the ‘A’ level, which leaves a lot of confusion on who will lead the side - Priyank Panchal or Vihari?
Panchal, in his last Ranji Trophy campaign was his team's third-highest run-scorer, in what was a start and stop campaign for him. After his monumental season in 2018-19, where he amassed 898 runs averaging 59.86, with four centuries and five fifties, he would be integral to India A’s squad for the series against South Africa.
Unlike previous years, where it would be near impossible to topple an opening pair, in the era of tough bubble life, several stars are going to be rested, which makes this series extremely crucial for the openers to grab their chances.
The new-age openers
Prithvi Shaw and Devdutt Padikkal would be two names that the selectors would follow closely, after them earlier tracking both Panchal and Easwaran, with the latter even being named in the setup, home and away. With Rohit entrusted with the captaincy duties in the shortest format and a real need for giving him ample rest ahead of the T20 World Cup, it will be an opportunity for Padikkal and Shaw to capture some attention.
Both of them, previously on the domestic circuit, showed exemplary calibre and attacking prowess against opponents. But their biggest task would be playing on bouncy and pacy tracks. If past records are suggestive of anything, it would be Shaw’s biggest obstacle and litmus test, which if he passes with flying colours, would put him in prime focus.
India’s lack of left-handed openers, since Shikhar Dhawan’s axe, makes Padikkal an interesting prospect. Dravid has worked, even though in limited capacity with the southpaw, knowing his abilities. While Padikkal’s white-ball record has made it really enticing to have him in the setup, his test would be to prove that his game is intact even against the red-ball.
Does India ‘A’ squad really solve India’s middle-order issues?
While Krishnappa Gowtham, Rahul Chahar, Ishan Porel and Navdeep Saini have been involved in the setup, the inclusion of Sarfaraz Khan and Baba Aparajith came as a surprise. After being away from the ‘A’ scene in the last four years, Aparajith’s inclusion shows what exactly the Indian team is looking for in the future.
India’s top-order and middle-order, as of now, barring Hanuma Vihari, is without the prospect of an added bowling option. Vihari’s exclusion from the national team and inclusion back in the ‘A’ setup is suggestive that the management only look at the right-hander as an away specialist. In that case, what is the future for the 28-year-old, who has only played one Test at home?
While it has in the past made them forcibly pick Ravindra Jadeja to manage their bowling unit, Aparajith’s selection is in that direction. Last time around, however, they had the services of Vijay Shankar in the setup. With the only all-round option in Aparajith, it begs the question: why no pace all-rounders in South Africa?
And given that the current Indian middle-order crop (Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli) aren’t in their best of forms, picking just two middle-order batters in Sarfraz Khan and Upendra Yadav doesn’t quite make sense. On top of that, the struggle of the middle-order batters away from home shows why conditions alien are the toughest test for Indian batters. Isn’t the South Africa series an ideal opportunity to test out the middle-order batters?
It asks the biggest question of it all, is this ‘A’ squad that is picked for South Africa purely for the upcoming home stretch of the Indian season or is it an all-condition squad?
Would India go to wrist-spin anytime soon?
In the recent past, barring Kuldeep Yadav, India have not had any leg-spinner in the setup, with most of their trust being in the finger spinners (Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Shahbaz Nadeem) which extends to four if you consider Hanuma Vihari. And that’s a pertinent notion, India have not had a quality leg-spinner in a long time and their last quality wrist-spinning option was Kuldeep. Yet again, the squad shows the trust in finger spinners - Krishnappa Gowtham, Saurabh Kumar and Aparajith.
However, even with the Gowtham in the 'A' setup, there is a big issue. What kind of precedent are the selectors putting out when the regular performer on the domestic circuit, Gowtham, isn't favoured over Jayant Yadav in the senior squad for the home series against New Zealand? With the selectors placing their faith in the Karnataka all-rounder during the home season against England, what has since then changed to push Gowtham back in the 'A' setup? Either way, it just one puzzling aspect of a perplexing selection.
But with just one wrist spinner in the setup, in Rahul Chahar, is it a distant possibility to dream that team India could go back to featuring wrist spinners in their setup? It is definitely more distant than it being a possibility at the moment, considering how Chahar has had to battle plenty of demons with his inclusion in the white-ball setup.
The exclusion of Jaydev Unadkat
In Navdeep Saini, Ishan Porel and Arzan Nagwaswalla, India have more than a potent pace battery, which has the ability to trouble batters. Now with the series in South Africa, the onus is on the pacers to give the Indian team a frolicking start. And that’s where the trio would come really handy. Saini offers both pace and bounce. Porel, on the other hand, with his ability to seam the new and old ball, too has the potential pace to trouble the South African batters.
The inclusion of Nagwaswalla is interesting though, given that the selectors have completely ignored the existence of Jaydev Unadkat, who picked the most wickets for any pacer last time around in the Ranji Trophy on surfaces that were flat. Even though ironic, it would have been fitting if the left-arm pacer was picked for the series against South Africa, owing to his consistent performance, both with the bat and the ball.
What was the biggest surprise of the squad? Not Aparajith but Umran Malik. Malik made the headlines with his white-ball show in the Indian Premier League. Yes, he has the pace, yes he is exciting and makes things extremely awkward for the batters but how about Sandeep Warrier, who performed day in and out in the previous tour? And with no real red-ball games in between the two tours, what is the indicator of selection?
India A squad for South Africa tour: Priyank Panchal (c), Prithvi Shaw, Abhimanyu Easwaran, Devdutt Padikkal, Sarfaraz Khan, Hanuma Vihari, Baba Aparajith, Upendra Yadav (wk), K Gowtham, Rahul Chahar, Saurabh Kumar, Navdeep Saini, Umran Malik, Ishan Porel, Arzan Nagwaswalla.