The Usual Suspects

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Star turn With the likes of MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli, the Indian middle order looks solid, Photo: AFP

Installing the Indian cricket team either as ‘favourites’ or ‘no-hopers’ is hazardous. As ‘no-hopers’, they stunned the West Indies in 1983. In 2007, they went on to win the World T20 title with almost no experience in the format. Those two successes, almost two-and-a-half decades apart, were what made India fall in love with the ODI and T20 formats with Tests becoming a poor cousin.

So, in terms of public interest, the announcement of the Indian team for the World Cup is second only to the announcement of the results of the General Election.

Most people would have had at least 12-13 names from the 15 that were finally picked, and as is always the case, it is the last 2-3 berths that are debated.

Before we get to the actual picking of the squad, one also needs to ask whether it is intelligent/smart to announce a team while an international match is still going on or is about to commence as was the case with the Sydney Test on the eve of which the World Cup team was announced.

Clearly, there were a few borderline cases in the Test team and missing out on the World Cup squad could adversely impact them. That is precisely what happened to Murali Vijay, who was in great form in the first three Tests — scoring over 400 runs — and he must have been disappointed at being left out and went out for a three-ball duck. Unfair is the first word that comes to mind.

Shikhar Dhawan, another borderline case, was not in the Test team for Sydney, but made the cut for the World Cup.

In contrast, Australian selectors are said to have also picked the team, but chose not to make it public until the Sydney Test is over. Their administration is mindful of the effect on the players if they don’t make the team.

Coming back to the squad, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina and Ravichandran Ashwin were certainties. Also, we needed four pacers. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma were the clear choices, even though all were found wanting in the Test series against Australia. Varun Aaron is too wayward with a question mark against his ability to last a full series or a tournament, and Mohit Sharma is too raw. So, that meant that 10 spots were already taken.

The second wicketkeeper’s slot pitted Ambati Rayudu against Robin Uthappa, who has been in great form. But once Dhawan was picked, Uthappa and Vijay lost out as both are openers. Rayudu’s keeping may be a shade below Uthappa, but he is a good batsman to have in the middle order.

Where and how could Yuvraj Singh come in? He was discussed alright, but apparently Dhoni was not too keen on him. Yuvraj has been in great form in the Ranji Trophy, and his bowling could have been an asset. But it was not really a clear-cut case for him. Ultimately, his age (33), lack of match practice — he last played for the odi team in December 2013 — and the fact that he was no longer as electric in the field as he was went against him. His Ranji centuries failed to convince the selectors.

The big gamble has been Ravindra Jadeja, normally an automatic pick for the shorter formats. But the selectors have taken a chance despite his shoulder injury. The news is that he should be fit in six weeks’ time, but will he be good enough to play and will he have had enough match practice by the time India turn up to play Pakistan on 15 February at Adelaide? Clearly, the skipper is confident and the physio has given Jadeja the go-ahead and the selectors seem convinced. And yes, if the team go all the way to the final stages, it will almost be March-end, so surely Jadeja should be fit by then.

Yet, with the bowling attack being what it is — the weak link in the Indian team — the selectors went in for a bowling all-rounder (Stuart Binny) and a third spinner (Axar Patel, who is a great future prospect). Patel, 20, was the BCCI Under-19 Cricketer of the Year for 2012-13 and played a pivotal role in India’s triumph in the ACC Emerging Teams Cup in 2013. And what’s more, in 2014, he took wickets in each of the seven matches he got to bowl out of the nine he was picked for.

Interestingly, in one of the only two matches — both against Bangladesh — he did not bowl, Binny picked six wickets for four runs and Bangladesh were dismissed for a paltry 58 runs.

The buzz is that Dhoni had wanted Vijay, but was not clear whether he wanted to leave out Dhawan, who can score at a fast pace. Vijay has often been devastating in the IPL and Dhoni tried hard for him, but the selectors felt that with Dhawan in the mix, there was no need for another opener/batsman and they chose Binny, who also edged out Mohit Sharma on the strength of his batting.

Rumours of his father, Roger Binny, being part of the selection committee may not be fair to the younger Binny. However, it is known that the father recused himself when his son’s name was being discussed.

Now on to Patel. He was the find of 2014 and his height will enable him to get better bounce. With Ashwin not inspiring even 50 percent of the confidence Anil Kumble did, it was probably wise that the selectors went in for an extra spinner. Also remember, Jadeja is not fully fit.

So, now there is the team with three openers in Dhawan, Sharma and Rahane, who can all be lethal and devastating, but they need to click. The middle order is the best placed with Kohli leading the pack and with Raina, Dhoni and Jadeja plus Ashwin. There will be a choice between Binny and Rayudu depending on the kind of confidence the bowlers inspire in the skipper. In matches where Dhoni may want a restrictive bowler and Jadeja is not available, one of the pacers could make way for a second spinner in Patel.

@swinging_swamy | [email protected]

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