Since breaking into the Indian setup in 2017, Washington Sundar has quickly turned himself from a probable in the playing XI to a near-certainty. However, with just one month left for the T20 World Cup in the Middle East, an injury now puts him at the risk of missing the tournament. But will his absence cost India dearly?
Having shown his worth in the Tamil Nadu Premier League first and Indian Premier League next, the lanky all-rounder quickly emerged as one of the most viable options for the Men in Blue, after they had apparently moved on from the other Tamil Nadu off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. The young Washington not only took the ball in precarious stage of a T20 clash – the powerplay - but also had a strong hold on how India would set the tempo in high-octane clashes.
What makes him extremely handy in a setup like India’s is that he can operate not only solely as an off-spinner but also double up as a handy lower-order batsman, which strengthens the depth of the batting unit. While in most other formats it wouldn’t make an innate difference, the intricacy of the shortest format is such. In T20Is, the southpaw has scored 47 runs for the country, striking at 146.87.
His value, however, increases multi-fold considering the fact that he mostly bowls in the powerplay, one of the toughest phases in the shortest format for a bowler. Since his debut, no Indian bowler in the shortest format has picked up more wickets in the powerplay than the off-spinner, who tops the chart with 13 wickets.
In the Indian colours, the off-spinner has bowled in 30 games, where he has picked up 25 wickets at an average of 30, while only conceding at an ER of 7.24, having bowled most of his overs in the powerplay phase (49 overs) where has also picked most of his wickets (13).
Combine that with the fact that he only concedes 7 RPO in the powerplay, only behind Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, it nearly makes the youngster an automatic pick in the playing XI. The last time Washington was in the Middle East, representing RCB, he ended the tournament with 8 wickets, mostly bowling in the powerplay, with half of his wickets (4) coming in the first six.
But with him set to miss the tournament, can India find a replacement from elsewhere?
Truth be told, there is no off-spinner in the country that matches his profile, of bowling in the powerplay, barring Ravichandran Ashwin. But even with Ashwin, since his trail-blaze run in the IPL with the Punjab Kings (back then Kings XI Punjab) and the Delhi Capitals, consistency and his age has always been a concern. Alongside that, in the recent past, the 34-year-old hasn’t been at pace as a fielder, which might take away some merit points from him.
Since 2017, the year where Washington made his IPL debut, Ashwin has delivered 41.4 overs in the powerplay, picking up ten wickets at an average of 32.4 and an economy rate of 7.8. In the same time period, the younger off-spinner has nine wickets, at a better economy rate of 7.3 and an average of 39.6.
In the 2020 edition, Ashwin returned to his familiar place with the ball, in the powerplay, where he bowled 17 overs in the first six overs. In those 17 overs, the off-spinner picked up seven crucial wickets for the Capitals, at an average of 17, with a strike rate of 14.6 and an economy of 7.
The experienced of the two off-spinners - Ashwin - has, in the past, played a vital role for the Chennai Super Kings with the new ball and later, with India in various competitions. With Virat Kohli specifically mentioning that a possibility for the 34-year-old would only arise if things go south for Washington, will there be a return for him?
"Washington Sundar has been doing really well for us, and it is difficult to have two players similar. Unless Washi has a horrible season (not possible).... you need to have some logic in the question as well. Easy to ask," Virat Kohli said before the series against England in home.
While apart from Ashwin, there exists very few options on the Indian circuit with similar traits – Lalit Yadav, Krishnappa Gowtham and Jayant Yadav – they don’t hold much power behind their performances to warrant a place. Lalit Yadav surely provides India with a handy batting option, the others in the same order not as adept as the former, with Gowtham being the closest to the competition.
That leaves India in a tricky spot, a messy spot ahead of the T20 World Cup, considering that they have to announce the squad in a fortnight. Although it is tough to predict whether Washington’s absence could pave way to a like-for-like replacement in Ashwin, Kohli’s obsession with all-rounders might very well also hand the opportunity to the likes of Krunal Pandya or Axar Patel.
Both of them have shown that they are a capable commodity in the powerplay, with the Mumbai Indians’ spinner picking up two wickets in the powerplay phase, conceding just 6.1 RPO. The Delhi Capitals spinner, on the other hand, aces the first six, with an average of 17.3 (four wickets) while conceding at just 6.3 RPO.
Whichever way Kohli goes, it is certain that India have the players in the right form to replace the injured player, who might not be as big a miss as the initial claims.