The three-match T20I series against Afghanistan starts on 11th January (Thursday). These are the only T20Is India will play before the mega event in June. With only three games left, India have a lot of combination issues to solve.
However, none of the four are playing this series. To complicate things, India have gone in with Sanju Samson, who wasn't there in the South Africa T20I squad. Before this series, the wicket-keeper's spot was a two-way battle between Ishan Kishan and Jitesh Sharma.
But now it has become a three-way battle, with Samson entering the race.
The bowling is more settled than the batting department. Bumrah will be the ace pacer, Hardik one among the all-rounders, and Arshdeep Singh the second fiddle for Bumrah. The spin competition is between only two, Kuldeep Yadav and Ravi Bishnoi. Jadeja will be the other spinner.
Before that, what will India's combination be for the upcoming series? Who will open with Rohit Sharma? Will India go with three spinners? Let's look at a few possible combinations.
Rohit's opening partner - an obvious choice or a surprise pick?
While head coach Rahul Dravid confirmed on Wednesday that Kohli won't be available for the first T20I, and that Jaiswal will open with Rohit in the first T20I, India’s preferred opening combination (when everyone is fit and available) is anyone’s guess.
Ideally, Jaiswal should be the first-choice opener with Rohit. Though the dashing left-hander has blown hot and cold in his T20I career, Jaiswal's intent is something to watch out for.
In his 14-inning career, Jaiswal has a strike rate of 158.7 in the powerplay and 162.03 in the middle overs (7-15). Among Indians who have played 10+ innings in the first six overs, none have a better strike rate than Jaiswal.
On the other hand, his competitor, Gill, has scored at a strike rate of 114.6 in 13 innings in this phase. More in Jaiswal's glory, the left-hander has struck at 140.2 in his first ten balls compared to 101.02 by Gill.
By numbers, Jaiswal could release the pressure on Rohit as Gill usually takes some time to get going.
In an extremely rare case, both of these could be ousted if India decides to open with Rohit and Kohli.
In IPL since 2021, Kohli has opened the innings for Royal Challengers Bangalore in 37 out of the 45 innings he has played. Though it is unfair on both the openers, Jaiswal and Gill, India's best combination is possible with the two veterans opening the innings.
Jitesh Sharma or Sanju Samson?
One of the most talked about topics in Indian cricket is the choice of wicket-keeper. Post Rishabh Pant's horrific incident, India have experimented with three wicket-keepers - Samson, and Kishan.
Among the three, Kishan has played the most games (11). However, the left-hander has averaged 18.8 and has struck at just 112.5 in those 11 innings, despite a good home series against Australia in 2023. To be precise, none of these three have made an impact.
Kishan and Jitesh were preferred in the series against Australia (Nov 2023) and South Africa (Dec 2023). In this series, the management have gone with Samson and Jitesh. While Jitesh is relatively new to the international scene, Samson has been in and out of the team.
Both these batters average below 20, but Jitesh (150) holds the upper hand when it comes to strike rate when compared with Samson (133.6). The question is, will India choose the experience of Samson (24 matches) or go ahead with Jitesh? As Jitesh predominantly bats five or lower, his inclusion wouldn't add to India's combination headache.
Three spinners or two?
From the squad against Afghanistan, India have four spinners, two all-rounders, and two outright spinners. Axar Patel is a sure-shot starter. That leaves Washington Sundar, Kuldeep, and Bishnoi as the remaining three.
If India plan to go with three spinners, then Kuldeep and Bishnoi will feature in the XI.
It is a hard choice between the two as both have similar numbers in T20Is. Mukesh has ten wickets at an average of 31.4, an economy of 9.3, and a bowling strike rate of 20.3. Avesh has played more matches, but his average (31.3), economy (9.0), and strike rate (20.8) are similar to Mukesh.
The only positive in Mukesh's perspective is his numbers at the death overs. Both pacers have picked four wickets in the last five overs, but Mukesh has conceded at 8.7 compared to 11.6 by Avesh in this phase.
Additionally, if India opt to go with three spinners, then Shivam Dube could play in place of Tilak Varma as the sixth bowling option.
However, if India go with two spinners, both Avesh and Mukesh will be in the XI, as India have only three pacers in the entire squad.
Then, the choice comes down between Kuldeep and Bishnoi. In an ideal world, Bishnoi, the second-ranked bowler, should be the first choice. More than that, Bishnoi is a gun fielder and a better batter than Kuldeep.
But on the numbers front, Kuldeep pips Bishnoi in T20Is since 2023. The left-arm wrist spinner has picked up 14 wickets at an average of 13.1 and an economy of 6.0. On the other hand, the leggie has 18 wickets at an average of 17.6 while conceding 7.2 runs/over. Both spinners have a good strike rate - Kuldeep (13.2) & Bishnoi (14.7).