Wide bench strength is a blessing. Except for the day when one has to trim players out to select the best bunch of 15 for a World Cup. Like it is for the Indian selectors right now for the upcoming T20 World Cup in October-November.
There are a few players who are guaranteed in the squad (and in the XI) if fit. There are eight such players in India’s white-ball set-up at the moment. But, picking out the other seven can be a real headache, albeit a good one for the selectors.
Let us go role by role to answer the questions that the selectors will be debating while finalizing the players.
Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul pick themselves. As weird as it sounds, the opening combination from the ongoing Test series in England will most likely persist during the World Cup as well. The two are perhaps the only two openers in the world to pull it off across all formats. Such is their class.
There is also an option of opening with Virat Kohli but that is a tactical move that will come later as Kohli will be in the squad anyway. For players to choose as a reserve opener, India’s choices are Shikhar Dhawan and Prithvi Shaw.
Though it was in the ODI format, Shaw mesmerized everyone with his silken stroke-play in the recent series against Sri Lanka. In the form of his life, Shaw has a strike rate of 165.6 in T20s this year to go with the average of 34.2.
On the other hand is Shikhar Dhawan. Working in his favour is the form he displayed in the 2020 season of the IPL conducted in UAE, the venue of the World Cup. The opener amassed 618 runs (@ 44.14) at an impressive strike rate of 144.73 then. He was also the leading run-getter in IPL 2021 - 380 runs at 54.28 - before the tournament came to a halt. Being a left-hander also works to his benefit for variety. Unless the selectors opt for Ishan Kishan instead. We will come to him next.
The number one expectation from a middle-order batsman is the ability to play spin well. And no one does this well than Suryakumar Yadav. Kohli is an automatic choice. The options then are Shreyas Iyer and Ishan Kishan.
Iyer was the incumbent number four/five during the T20I series against England in March earlier this year, but he has been out due to a shoulder injury and has no professional cricket under his belt since. In an otherwise sure selection, lack of evidence on recent form and recovery can go against him.
India also have Kishan as an option. He is essentially a floater who can bat anywhere in the top four. Like Dhawan, the advantage with him is being a left-hander. Unlike Dhawan, he can play outrageous strokes from ball one.
Some might also wonder why Sanju Samson doesn’t find a mention. But, let’s face it, he has not done enough to make the cut yet. Even as a wicket-keeper, there are two in the squad as certainties and one more as an option in Kishan who are above him in the pecking order.
Now, Rishabh Pant is not necessarily a lower-order batsman. Like Kishan, he is a floater and can at anywhere between four and six. Both he and Hardik Pandya are currently the only two proven bashers, fit for the job needed in the lower-middle order. As things stand, there is really no one else can throw their hat in the mix for the job.
There are hardly any questions about Ravindra Jadeja being the first-choice all-rounder. Subject to fitness, Hardik will perform the role of the sixth bowler. However, Washington Sundar’s injury has created multiple dilemmas for the team. The first of them is choosing another all-rounder.
The options for the selectors are the two players who do exactly what Jadeja do, only less consistently. Nothing really separates Krunal Pandya and Axar Patel. Maybe, Krunal is a better batsman than Axar while Axar is a better bowler of the two. Hence the selectors will have to decide on what facet they need more for the role.
Coming to the second dilemma that Sundar’s injury has created. They now will have to choose between two players who will not contribute a lot with the bat and in the field- Varun Chakravarthy and Ravichandran Ashwin.
Chakravarthy is the only mystery spinner of substance in the country. That works in his favour given most of the players will have to face him for the first time. On the other hand, Ashwin is the experience under his belt and gets left-handers out for fun. A big boost for the match-ups. Choosing between these two will be the second-biggest headache.
Coming to the biggest headache. In the last few months, Rahul Chahar has been slowly and steadily stealing the baton of being India’s first-choice spinner from Yuzvendra Chahal.
Chahal has played 49 T20Is for team India, bagged 63 wickets and has been a vital member of India's limited-overs squad. Since 2019, however, his numbers in T20Is have dwindled drastically. In the last two years, the leg-spinner has played 22 games, picked 19 wickets at 40.5 and conceded 8.9 runs per over. Chahal did not have the best IPL 2021 either. The wrist-spinner picked only four scalps at 47.5 runs apiece and 8.26 runs per over in seven games.
Rahul Chahar, on the other hand, took 11 wickets in seven games in IPL 2021. However, he bowled on wickets a lot more conducive to spin than those Chahal bowled on. But, recently in Sri Lanka, he raged havoc by bowling at an economy of 5.3 in two T20Is and taking four wickets as well. Not to mention that he has more variations than Chahal. Kuldeep Yadav is the mix too but that is just he will have to wait.
This might be the toughest puzzle to solve for the selectors. Hence, they might opt to have both in the squad and not choose any of the other two slow left-arm spinners in the all-rounder category above.
In the pace department, Jasprit Bumrah picks himself of course. The choices for two potential spots are Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Deepak Chahar, Shardul Thakur and T Natarajan.
Going for the easier ones first. T Natarajan is tempting given the left-arm angle. However, like Iyer, he has been out due to injury most of this year and does not have any recent form under his belt. This puts his chances in a jeopardy.
Shardul Thakur - or let’s just call him Lord Thakur - seems to be having the Midas touch in at the moment with whatever he does. A great asset to have at number eight, Thakur’s batting makes him a certainty for a spot. Not to mention he has all the variations – knuckleball, slower bouncer etc. – to succeed as a bowler too.
The choice then remains between Bhuvneshwar and Deepak Chahar.
Chahar can swing the ball at a decent pace and provide the early breakthroughs. His numbers in T20s since 2019 are impressive. In the powerplay (Overs 1 to 6), the pacer has bagged 39 scalps - more than any other Indian pacer. His recent exploits with the bat in Sri Lanka makes him a tempting bet as well.
However, the choice between him and Bhuvneshwar will come down to who makes a better death bowler. Bhuvneshwar struggled in this year's IPL (three wickets in five games at an economy rate of 9.10). But, for years, he was not way behind Bumrah as India’s white-ball spearhead and can come good in pressure situations. Like he did in the series against England earlier this year. Experience might work in Bhuvi’s favour ahead of a coveted trophy for India.
To make way for both, the selectors might have to drop the idea of picking a reserve all-rounder and will have to choose only one of Chahal or Rahul Chahar. Let us see what direction they take.