Guts & Balls

The Final Countdown

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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THE MEN BURDENED with picking India’s squad for the 2019 World Cup were never going to please everyone; a thankless task given that the country’s current catchment pool is vast and consists of at least 40 cricketers all talented enough to walk into the ODI team on any given day, all while the national selectors had only 15 spots to play with. Still, there was a sense of something amiss once chief selector MSK Prasad revealed the names of the players who captain Virat Kohli will place his complete trust in for India to win its third 50-over quadrennial. And a major factor for that sense of uncertainty over the choices boiled down to the selectorial answer, or lack of, to this team’s most disconcerting problem that is at once old and urgent—the unsolved No 4 spot in the batting order.

Don’t get me wrong: the selection of all-rounder Vijay Shankar—a medium pacer with the ball and a batsman with a great proclivity to swing for the fences even before he gets his eyes in—could well be seen as a masterstroke and the decision to bat him at No 4, immediately after the high-scoring top-three of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli, may just be hailed as genius if it were to bear fruit by the time the World Cup ends on July 14th. But on April 15th, the day Prasad announced India’s squad and also highlighted Shankar’s surprising role in that squad, it was understandably met with raised eyebrows among all the game’s guardians—former players, the press and the public. Possibly because Shankar made his ODI debut only earlier this year and has batted all of five times in the format for his country (with a top score of 46). And certainly because Shankar has never batted higher than No 5 in any of those few occasions and yet has been immediately entrusted in a specialist’s batting position for the most important tournament in short-format cricket.

Unless Kohli (or the selectors for that matter) has seen something in him that the greater majority hasn’t, Shankar being named as India’s No 4 is a move that reeks of both hopefulness and hubris. Since the last ICC major in the Champions Trophy ended in June 2017 and all the way until their final international against Australia last month, India had tried as many as 11 different players to fill this elusive slot of No 4 and Ambati Rayudu had been the most prominent of the lot, in terms of both runs scored and games featured in. As recently as the ODI series in New Zealand this year, Rayudu was India’s top-scorer and Kohli had even gone on record to state that Rayudu ‘is designed to play that role’ and ‘it’s now about giving him enough game time till the World Cup so that that particular slot will be sorted for us’.

Quite often, too much time at hand is a double-edged sword for a cricketer trying to stake his claim for a maiden World Cup appearance and as was the case with Rayudu, the wrong end of the said sword gored him at the most inopportune time. Against Australia in India’s final ODI series before the World Cup played last month, Rayudu failed to score more than 20 runs in any of his three successive outings at No 4 and was dropped. And when his woeful form continued into the ongoing IPL, Rayudu’s name was left out of the final list that was read out aloud by selector Prasad on selection day. “We did give a few more chances to Rayudu,” Prasad said at the media briefing. “But what Vijay Shankar offers is three dimensions.” Indian cricketers don’t often comment on selection matters. But Rayudu, who perhaps realised by then that his best opportunity to represent his country on the biggest stage had been snatched away, took to Twitter to vent his frustration when he wrote: “Just ordered a new set of 3D glasses to watch the World Cup.”

A squad is simply the framework for the think-tank in the dressing room—coaches Ravi Shastri, Sanjay Bangar, Bharat Arun; and Virat Kohli—to work within. And Kohli knows better than most that squads don’t win cricket matches; only playing elevens do

Rayudu wasn’t the only notable omission. The young and supremely skilled batsman- wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant also has reasons to feel hard done by. Out of the 15 names that were announced on Monday, 11 had long secured their respective air tickets to England. They were Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli (top order), Kedar Jadhav, wicketkeeper MS Dhoni and all rounder Hardik Pandya (lower middle order), Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal (spinners), and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami (fast bowlers). Stripped to its essence, the only job for the selection think-tank was to pick four players. As a reserve opener they chose KL Rahul; as a back-up spinner they picked Ravindra Jadeja; and Shankar was not only selected as the second fast bowling-all rounder but, as we now know, was also anointed India’s No 4. Which left them with just one spot to deal with—that of the reserve wicketkeeper.

It was a toss-up between Pant, who has already cornered the top job in Test cricket and is considered one of the most explosive batsmen in T20 cricket, and Dinesh Karthik, who has spent the entirety of his 15-year career in the fringes of the Indian team and, more painfully, as a satellite to the star of Dhoni. Pant, who hasn’t featured in too many ODIs but has all the promise for greatness in the format, would’ve made for an inspired selection but when the selectors hedged their collective bet on Karthik, many simply couldn’t find the words to explain it. Like former England captain Michael Vaughan, who tweeted: “No Rishabh Pant in the World Cup squad… India must be bonkers!!!!”

Karthik’s selection would’ve made a little more sense had they considered him in the No 4 role, considering his natural intuition to anchor an innings will have a soothing effect on the middle-order in case the top-order fails (India remains overly reliant on the openers and Kohli to score a bulk of the runs), but it was revealed by Prasad that Karthik is in the squad purely as a back-up for Dhoni and will not come into play otherwise. All said and done, it would be foolish to take the selectors’ words at face value. For, once the World Cup is underway, the process of picking the final team from the available 15 on a given day will not be as rigid as Prasad makes it out to be.

A squad is simply the framework for the think-tank in the dressing room—coaches Ravi Shastri, Sanjay Bangar and Bharat Arun; and Kohli—to work within. And Kohli knows better than most that squads don’t win cricket matches; only playing elevens do. He has, after all, played in two World Cups so far and the squad in 2011 featured Piyush Chawla and the one in 2015 had Stuart Binny. Yet, India won the first one and only fell at the penultimate hurdle in the other.