Whenever illness or injury has struck off late, Indian cricket has been spoilt for choices this season. First, Ishant Sharma was laid low as the Test season kicked off. But Virat Kohli as Test skipper did not have to worry as he juggled his pace options between Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
And now, illness has now seen Suresh Raina sidelined for this second One-Day International at the Feroz Shah Kotla on Thursday as well. When he was ruled out in Dharamsala, Kedar Jadhav came into the eleven, and impressed in his limited outing. Raina’s continued absence means that Jadhav will feature in the Indian first eleven for a second match running, a healthy sign for the experimentation MS Dhoni wanted before the Champions Trophy.
It allows for Jadhav to play consecutive matches, a chance not often afforded to fringe players. It allows for Hardik Pandya to continue in his progressive all-rounder role. It allows Ajinkya Rahane to continue to open in ODI cricket, his preferable batting position.
Horses for courses?
Why is this important, though? Dhoni is not used to experimentation in his team selections. He is someone who looks for comfort in the players he has known over time. Winning is important, for you are playing for India, and this is the reasoning behind his focus on one particular player for one particular role. Raina is the enforcer that Jadhav can be, while Dhawan is the explosive opener that Rahane can be. Form, crucially enough, is of little value at times.
How else is Raina’s inclusion in this ODI squad explained? He had a poor series against South Africa, and was not considered for the Australia tour. He was even left out of the Zimbabwe tour, which is usually a chance for discards as much as it is for those warming the bench. Leaving him out was the final conclusion of the previous selection committee. They wanted to look ahead, and search for other options in the middle order.
And yet, with the new selection committee just settling in, Raina is back in the team without having done much to prove his wares in recent times. Barring illness, he would have obviously made the first eleven in Dharamsala as well. Such is the confidence Dhoni places in his past record.
It is akin to the manner Dhawan had previously enjoyed this run of confidence. It was in 2014 when injury last put him out of reckoning for the ODI eleven, and Rahane opened the innings against England, West Indies and Sri Lanka. In 11 matches, he scored 435 runs (averaging 39.54), with two hundreds and a fifty, and yet when the 2015 ODI World Cup came around, he was shifted down the order once again to make space for the left-hander.
Delhi will offer a new challenge to Hardik Pandya
However, while it cannot be denied that Dhoni remains inflexible in selection when his first-choice players are available, his hand is now forced to try out different options with the main bowlers rested. It was the same in Australia, when with Raina missing, he had to try out Gurkeerat Mann and Rishi Dhawan. Sadly enough, they did not come through in tough conditions against tougher opposition. This is where the Hardik Pandya experiment in the last ODI assumes significance.
His success in Dharamsala becomes a precursor to the conditions the all-rounder will find in England next summer. Maybe he will not find as much success in the coming matches at home, as pitches will be very different, moving to different, drier parts of the country. But even an iota of realisation that Pandya can do the job consistently in helpful climes, whilst under pressure, is vital.
“He is someone who gives us right balance, because he cannot only bowl but he bowls at a pretty decent pace. It was nice that he really bowled well in his first game with the new ball. That was certainly a strategy that MS wanted Hardik to try. And it’s really heartening that he came up with the man of the match in his first game. So that should give him a lot of confidence. All-rounders who can run in and bowl quick, and bat, are certainly an asset and he is someone we’ll closely monitor and see how he progresses,” said coach Anil Kumble in Delhi on Wednesday.
New Zealand await a Kane special
Meanwhile, New Zealand will be hoping to reverse the ill form that they have sustained for so long on this tour. Through the Test series they were able to put pressure on India with the ball, but failed to do with the bat. It could have been the same had they put up 250-280 in Dharamsala. Then again, this is the vital ingredient missing from their mix at the moment – runs.
It is at this juncture the spotlight shines brightest on Kane Williamson, their best batsman and leader. Despite contrasting personalities, many see in him the same inspiration that Brendon McCullum possessed. In reality, they are missing his swagger more. If he were in a similar situation, McCullum would have grabbed the next game by the neck and wringed it. That alone would have inspired life back into this side.
So the question remains if, for all his calm and composure, and the ranking among the best batsmen in the world, can Williamson do so in Delhi?