On 23 June 2013, India were riding high. They had just won the ICC Champions Trophy after defeating England by five runs. This was their third ICC limited overs trophy within a span of six years, having won the ICC World T20 in 2007 and the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2011. The Men in Blue had a top squad and more big trophies were expected to come along in the years to follow.
And since that victorious day at Edgbaston, Birmingham – it’s fair to say that India have been the best side in limited overs cricket. After all, they have the best record in that period. Since the 2013 Champions Trophy, when you combine ODIs and T20s, India have won 143 matches with a win percentage of 64.1. While no other team has won more limited overs international (LOI) matches in these six years, India’s win percentage is also the highest among the top 10 teams.
Yet, the Indian team will be far from satisfied with their overall LOI showing during this period. And that is because the most important aspect of LOI cricket is an ICC tournament and the Men in Blue have failed to win any of the five such tournaments that have taken place since June 2013. They’ve reached the final four in each of these events but failed to get past the finishing line every time.
India’s next shot at white ball cricketing glory will come at the World T20, scheduled for October 2020 in Australia. And they will be determined to put the brakes on the habit of being so-near-yet-so-far, a habit that has developed over the previous few years. The journey to that tournament begins with a three-match T20I series against West Indies, beginning on Saturday, August 3 at Lauderhill, Florida, USA.
With Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya both understandably rested due to fears of burnout, India’s squad for the T20Is is mostly on expected lines. Shikhar Dhawan is fit again after missing most of the World Cup due to a thumb injury. He is expected to open the batting with Rohit Sharma, who was in glorious form at the marquee 50-over tournament, slamming five centuries in nine innings.
Although captain Virat Kohli opens for his franchise Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in the Indian Premier League (IPL), he’s almost certain to bat at number three. Then, comes the big question - a question that stuck around all along ahead of India’s selection for the ODI World Cup and it’s the same when it comes to the T20 format too: Who will bat at number four?
There are four options: KL Rahul, Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey and Rishabh Pant.
Rahul, who batted at four and latter opened the batting at the World Cup, has a fantastic T20I record. The 27-year-old has an average of 44 and a strike rate of 149.2, with two centuries to his name in this format at the international level. Interestingly, he scored a sensational ton in Florida in 2016 while batting at number four. But will the Indian team management consider a top four consisting solely of batsmen who prefer to open the batting in T20 cricket?
On the other hand, Iyer comes into the squad on the back of a good showing in the 2019 IPL. He scored 463 runs at an average of 30.9. His strike rate of 119.9 might look underwhelming, but as a batsman whose primary role was to anchor the innings with big hitters around him, it’s not as catastrophic as it looks. But with Dhawan, Rohit and Kohli all capable of anchoring the innings, is there a need of another such batsman?
Like Iyer, Pandey is also a batsman who likes to anchor the innings while batting in the top three. In IPL 2019, when he batted at positions four or lower, he averaged just 13.5 at a strike rate of 93.1. Such numbers saw him dropped from the Sunrisers Hyderabad line-up. He made his comeback against Chennai Super Kings and he was drafted in to bat at number three and what a difference that made! He scored a magnificent 49-ball 83 and followed that knock with two more fifties in his next three innings, showing that he is at his best when he bats in the top order. But this team already has an unmovable top three, so where do you fit Pandey?
Pant, who was India’s number four in the latter part of the World Cup, is the fourth option. But if the explosive wicketkeeper-batsman does bat at four, then Rahul, Iyer and Pandey might have to be dropped as batting them at five or lower makes little sense. Having said that, the team management has played Pandey at five or lower in the past, but the stats don’t support such a selection. Hence, ideally, Pant should bat at five with the all-rounders following him.
Speaking of all-rounders, Krunal Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja are obvious picks. While the former has caught the eye for a few years in the IPL, the latter is set to become a regular part of the LOI squads once again after impressive three-dimensional performances during the World Cup.
The selection of Washington Sundar, though, is an interesting one. There’s little doubt that the 19-year-old is an outstanding talent, with his economy rate (6.9) in T20 cricket highly admirable. But Indian captain Kohli, who also leads Sundar at RCB, picked him in only three matches during the IPL this year. If Kohli didn’t think Sundar was part of his team’s best XI in a domestic T20 league, will he trust the youngster at the international level?
With all three all-rounders doubling up as significant spin bowling options, only one other spinner - uncapped Rahul Charar - has been picked in the squad. The leg-spinner, soon to be 20, had a magnificent IPL this year. He took 13 wickets, conceding only 6.5 runs per over which saw him named the Game Changer of the Season. He followed that up with a fine showing for India A in the recent 50-over matches against West Indies A, picking up six wickets in three games. With Kuldeep Yadav not enjoying a great IPL and World Cup, the Bharaatpur-born bowler has a good opportunity to make his case in the build up to next year’s World T20.
In the pace bowling department, this series will give Khaleel Ahmed, Deepak Chahar and Navdeep Saini an opportunity to stake a claim as the team’s third seamer in the lead up to next year’s marquee event. With Bumrah rested, Bhuvneshwar Kumar will lead the pace attack with the other three fast bowlers having played just 10 T20Is between them.
Khaleel, Deepak and Saini are different type of bowlers and will add great variation to the bowling line-up. While Khaleel - as a left-arm bowler - offers a different angle, Saini is known to trouble batsmen with his rapid pace. Only Kagiso Rabada (141.5kmph) and Oshane Thomas (140.7 kmph) had a higher average bowling speed than Saini’s 140.7 kmph in the 2019 IPL. On the other hand, Deepak is a new-ball specialist who keeps the scoring down during the Powerplay. In this year’s IPL, he bowled 76.9% of his overs (50/65) in the first six, conceding 7.4 runs per over during this period and also took 15 (68%) off his total 22 wickets during this period.
India have 14 months to prepare for next year’s World T20 and this time, they will be hopeful of eliminating all muddles well before the tournament begins, something they failed to do before this year’s World Cup. A good performance against West Indies will be the first step in that direction.