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The importance of Jitesh Sharma in India's jigsaw puzzle

Last updated on 04 Dec 2023 | 01:25 PM
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The importance of Jitesh Sharma in India's jigsaw puzzle

Amidst the turmoil of batting positions, the wicket-keeper issue might be a tide now but can potentially turn into a tsunami

Me: OK google, find synonyms for 'spoiled for choice.'

Google: There are several synonyms for 'spoiled for choice,' but the best possible one is Indian cricket Team  

Here we go again. Since 2021, the last two months of the year have been packed with emotions for the Indian cricket team and its fans. November each year has been heart breaking, and December has been full of confusion. 

Following the 2021 group stage exit in the T20 World Cup in November, there was a commotion in the captaincy and coaching department. After the 2022 T20 WC edition exit in the semi-final in November, there was a lot of criticism on the selection and confusion over the ODI WC team in December. 

The heartbreak of losing in the final of the 2023 ODI WC despite being the best team hasn't subsided yet, and we have a new dilemma. Sometimes, it makes us wonder if we are getting used to it, just like how Nasseruddin Shah said in A Wednesday, "Galti hamari hai, hum log bahot jaldi used-to ho jate hai.".

There isn't much game time left for India before the 2024 edition of the T20 World Cup. India are scheduled to play six T20Is, three against South Africa in December 2023 and three against Afghanistan in January 2024. In these six games, they have 60 headaches. 

What's in the future for the Indian greats like Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli? If Rohit is under consideration, there will be five potential openers, oh sorry, six if we consider Kohli as well. There are more than ten options for the top four spots. Aren't we spoiled for choices? Amidst all these, the most under-discussed issue is the wicket-keeper department. 

On paper, India have options in Ishan Kishan, Sanju Samson, KL Rahul, and Jitesh Sharma. Again, spoiled for choices. But the biggest question is how to fit these four players without disrupting the balance of the combination. The only keeper who can fit into the XI without causing a disorder is Jitesh. 

The other three batters might pip Jitesh in terms of experience. However, those three batters, Kishan, Rahul, and Samson, have played as top-four batters for most of their T20 careers. The barrel is already full, and forcefully fitting any of these three would result in a spillage.  

This is where Jitesh's prowess comes in. In his T20 career, the right-handed batter has played 42 innings at five or lower while scoring 1000+ runs at an average of 35.4 and a staggering strike rate of 171.7. None of the other three have a strike rate of above 125. 

Even if Rahul, Samson, or Kishan play at number five or lower in the remaining six T20Is, they will march into the 2024 T20 World Cup undercooked in this role. Some might say Rahul has proven his credentials as a number five batter in the ODI's, but the T20s are a different ball game, and it is a well-known fact that Rahul takes a bit of time at the start. 

A perfect fit in every combination

One thing is sure: the opening slot isn’t available for either Kishan or Rahul. Among Ruturaj Gaikwad, Yashasvi Jaiswal, and Shubman Gill, the openers in contention, one will sit out if Rohit doesn't participate. If Rohit decides to play, he will be in the XI beyond doubt, and it will be a three-way battle between Gaikwad, Jaiswal & Gill for the remaining spot. This rules out Kishan or KL Rahul's chances of opening.

With Suryakumar Yadav, number four is probably the only sealed spot. For number three, we have another four-way battle. Three if Kohli opts out. Shreyas Iyer, Tilak Varma, Kishan & Kohli are currently the possible choices for India. 

Despite scoring back-to-back fifties against Australia in the first and second T20I, Kishan had to make way for Shreyas. This means Shreyas is higher in the pecking order. Also, by experience, Shreyas will get the nod if Kohli opts out. Shreyas has made an even stronger case with a match-winning fifty in the fifth T20I against Australia. 

However, Kohli will automatically slot into this place if he decides to play. In this case, Kishan cannot bat anywhere higher than six, and he might end up eating Rinku Singh's spot when Hardik Pandya returns and will be batting out of position. 

If India are to go with new blood, Jaiswal and Gill could open the innings with Surya at three, Hardik at four, Rinku at five, Jitesh at six, and two all-rounders, Jadeja/Axar and Washington Sundar. With Kohli in the squad, he can open alongside Jaiswal, and Gill can pave the way for him. In either combination, with or without Kohli, Jitesh is the perfect fitting wicket-keeper. 

With or without Rohit and Kohli, there is already chaos in the top four, and adding Rahul or Kishan into the XI makes it more complex. This means none of the three wicket-keepers apart from Jitesh is a better fit. Rahul Dravid, whose contract got extended recently, doesn't have one elephant in the room to address but several to address. While they are spoiled for choice, he can make his life easier by finalising Jitesh as the wicket-keeper for the World Cup.

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