England in India

There’s only one way to describe the Indian squad for the England ODIs and T20Is – confusing

Try as you might, you can’t find one good reason why Yuvraj Singh has been chosen to make a comeback to the ODI squad.

This has been a tumultuous week in the power corridors of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. The ones who are beyond question have been shafted out of authority in one big sweep by the Supreme Court, and in place, rank confusion has taken up residence.

This selection committee meeting was the first big operational moment after the Supreme Court order on Monday, and it was not expected to progress smoothly. After all, two selectors were not really eligible to take part in the meeting, as were the conveners (secretary or joint-secretary), owing to the criteria laid out by the Lodha panel. Then, there is the small matter of the BCCI president signing off on the selected team, and the board is currently without an administrative head with CEO Rahul Johri running everything alone.

That, after all the shenanigans played out in dramatic fashion over Friday afternoon, we have a legible Indian squad for the One-Day International and Twenty20 International series against England is something to be marvelled at.

First, a look at the two squads:

  • ODI squad: KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli (capt), MS Dhoni, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Yuvraj Singh, Ajinkya Rahane, Hardik Pandya, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Amit Mishra, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav  
  • T20I squad: KL Rahul, Mandeep Singh, Virat Kohli (capt), MS Dhoni (wk), Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Rishabh Pant (wk), Hardik Pandya, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Yuzvendra Chahal, Manish Pandey, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ashish Nehra  

There are some obvious pointers to take away from both squads. Virat Kohli now officially leads Indian cricket in all three formats. MS Dhoni is listed as keeper-batsmen in both limited-overs’ formats and there is cover for him in the face of Rahul, Jadhav and Pant, across ODIs and T20Is. The former skipper’s form will be keenly watched, of course.

The selectors have also opted for a full-strength bowling attack, with both Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja back after resting against New Zealand. The only exception is Mohammed Shami. With five Tests remaining this season though, it is a good call to give him more time to recover. Rohit Sharma continues to be unavailable.

So, what is Yuvraj Singh’s name doing in there, particularly in the ODI squad?

Yuvi’s dubious recall

Yuvraj Singh last played ODI cricket in 2013, when he was dropped after the South Africa tour due to a poor string of scores. As India began preparations for the 2015 World Cup, the left-hander’s record of one half-century in 11 matches went against him, and he was out of contention before 2014 even began.

After two years then, it is a surprising call-up, shocking even. Particularly given Dhoni’s resignation, as the Indian team management could have started an earnest build up for the 2019 50-over World Cup in England, and for that, some long-term calls were needed. And yet, with 30 months to count down before that big tournament, the selectors’ thinking herein is quite unclear.

Let us talk some numbers here. Yuvraj has been in good form in the 2016-‘17 Ranji Trophy, notching up 672 runs in five matches. His 177 against Madhya Pradesh at Lahli obviously impressed the selectors, so much so that MSK Prasad referred to that innings when asked about this particular call-up.

Image credit: AFP
Image credit: AFP

However, can first-class form serve as a reference point for limited-overs’ cricket? If yes, then how was Karun Nair overlooked, after he smacked a maiden triple Test hundred against England in Chennai, a knock replete with audacious strokes?

Yuvraj played a lot of Twenty20 cricket last year for the national side, appearing against Australia and Sri Lanka, through the Asia Cup and then the World T20. He scored 166 runs in 15 matches therein, a paltry average of 20.75. In the 2016 IPL, he scored 236 runs in 10 innings for Sunrisers Hyderabad. As a bits-and-pieces player, this is still an okay record. But it has been long clear that he is no longer the mercurial batsman India can trust in a format longer than 20-overs-a-side.

This is the crux of the matter. For the past year or more, the Indian think tank is in overdrive to find a replacement for Dhoni – someone who can bat at No. 5 or 6, and indeed learn how to do so until the 2019 World Cup comes about. They tried Suresh Raina against South Africa (2015), but he failed and has not played ODI cricket since (he was picked for New Zealand series, another debatable selection, but did not play due to injury).

An opportunity squandered

Rishi Dhawan and Gurkeerat Mann were tried out in Australia, but the job was too big for their inexperienced hands. It was then that Manish Pandey showed a fighting spirit with a maiden ODI hundred in Sydney, and proved that with careful investment of time, he could be the one. Sadly enough, he failed to replicate that form against New Zealand (76 runs in five matches).

It begs the question, if Yuvraj’s selection is an ad-hoc reaction to Pandey’s failure in that series. Sure Pandey is still part of the side, but what are the chances that he will be a part of the first-choice ODI eleven, and get a game in Pune (first ODI against England),when Yuvraj is available for selection?

Furthermore, assuming Dhoni slots in at No. 4 then, is Yuvraj a cover for him at No. 5? Is this a probable plan for the 2017 Champions Trophy, and is it feasible enough for 2019, wherein the squad will be eventually carrying two 38-year-old middle-order batsmen? Is this even a short-term ploy, or a plausible long-term option?

At a time when the likes of Pandey, Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya are begging for chances, to learn by experience and unlearn by mistakes in the job of setting up and finishing games for India, Yuvraj’s selection for this England series has snatched that opportunity away.

Rahane goes missing

In the hullabaloo over Yuvraj’s recall, an important aspect of this team selection has gone unnoticed. India’s Test vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane is not part of the T20I squad, another huge call by MSK Prasad and company. This development marks a three-month downturn for the Mumbai batsman, who failed to get going as opener (in Rohit Sharma’s absence) against New Zealand, scoring only one half-century in five matches. He then endured a first poor Test series since his debut at Delhi in 2013, scoring only 63 runs in three matches against England in November-December.

There are a couple pointers to wonder about herein, though. One, there is still some confusion whether 2018 will see an additional edition of the World Twenty20, before the scheduled tournament in Australia in 2020. As such, this T20I team selection is not really building up to anything. Thus, Rahane, who still opens in the Indian Premier League and might still do against England in ODIs with either Shikhar Dhawan or KL Rahul, could claw his way back.

Two, it puts spotlight on the selections of Rishabh Pant and Mandeep Singh. While the latter could be asked to open in the T20Is, it is the former who is exciting cricket fans in India. He notched up a superlative total of 972 runs in eight matches in the Ranji Trophy, and this call-up has been expected ever since. His batting talent is proven, even if in the domestic corridors. And sharing the dressing room with Dhoni will be seen as a keen stepping-stone to eventually replacing the legendary cricketer behind the stumps, when the time comes.

Last but not the least, with the presence of Raina and Ashish Nehra in the T20I squad, it bears a more balanced look than the ODI one, a peculiar conclusion given the primacy of sorting out the 50-over team this year.

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