Ahead of the second India-Bangladesh T20I fixture in Rajkot, stand-in-captain Rohit Sharma found himself fielding questions on his team’s not-too-formidable record in this format. India are at the summit of the Test rankings and second in ODIs but when it comes to the game’s shortest format, their fifth spot on the table doesn’t give the team an intimidating aura.
This is precisely the reason why the T20I squad currently looks in a state of flux, with no clarity on which player fits into which slot. India's loss to Mahmudullah's team at the Feroz Shah Kotla on Sunday has only exaggerated these concerns. Sharma, who was filling in for Virat Kohli, handled these questions diplomatically. “This is a format (T20Is) where we are trying a lot of players. With some of the key players not involved, we're trying a lot of younger players sitting on the fringes.”
In case Cyclone Maha allows the game to go ahead, India will keep chopping and changing their playing XI. With a forecast of “heavy to more heavy rains”, chances are the match might be a total washout or at least a curtailed one.
Since triumphing over West Indies in October 2018, India has had a pretty average run, losing to Australia and New Zealand and then finishing with a 1-1 drawn series against the visiting Proteas in September. Sharma was spot on in his observations as India have rarely fielded a full-strength squad during this period, with their all-format players either opting out for rest or relegated to the sidelines with injuries. In the ongoing series, Kohli and fast bowler Mohammed Shami were given a break taking stock of their herculean workload, while Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar are undergoing a rehab programme.
The scenario could have been different at the Kotla on Sunday night, if Bumrah had bowled the penultimate over of Bangladesh's chase to Mushfiqur Rahim instead of inexperienced left-arm seamer Khaleel Ahmed.
While insisting that winning remained his team's top priority, Sharma reiterated that the absence of some of the high-profile players have handed opportunities to youngsters to express themselves, and stake their claim for ODIs and Tests in the future. In essence, India are focusing on building their bench strength in the run-up to the World T20 in Australia 11 months away. That the team management had handed out debuts to Navdeep Saini, Mayank Markande, Rahul Chahar and Shivam Dube in T20Is this year only underlined Sharma's point that such series serve as an audition for the big-ticket event Down Under.
“This is the format where individuals can express themselves so they're ready for ODIs and Tests. We've seen players who have emerged from T20Is have gone on to feature in ODIs and Tests. We want our bench strength to be as strong as possible so this is probably the reason why you see so many new guys coming into the fray. It doesn't mean that we have to not win games. Winning remains top priority, but these guys will have to learn from it. This is how a lot of guys, including me, have learnt,” Sharma explained.
The IPL aside, India are scheduled to feature in 23 T20Is in the run-up to the showpiece event in Australia next year. While the high-profile batsmen and fast bowlers (read the all-format players) select themselves, there are three facets where there's considerable churn and spots are up for grabs.
Spinners: Ravichandran Ashwin, India's most seasoned spinner in the current set-up, has trumpeted his white-ball ambitions. However, he finds himself out of favour for both ODIs and T20Is, having last played in either format in 2017. For the time being, Ashwin may have to contend with playing only Tests and IPL.
Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav were celebrated in the run-up to the 2019 World Cup in England. The wrist-spin duo would still be persisted with considering the prospect of facing varied oppositions in Australia. What could, however, go against them is their limited batting ability. Rahul Chahar is another leg-spinner who was picked for the West Indies series in August following his impressive performances for Mumbai Indians in the IPL. He was included against South Africa and Bangladesh as well, but is yet to get a game since his debut in the Caribbean.
All-rounders: During the South Africa series, Kohli had expressed a desire to see players who could perform with both bat and ball. Hardik Pandya is the only genuine all-rounder in this side who can hold his spot in the middle order as a fast-bowling all-rounder. Over the last year, India have given opportunities to the likes of Washington Sundar and Krunal Pandya. At best, they can be termed utility players, providing four tight overs of spin, along with the required impetus with the bat down the order if the situation demands.
Despite their effectiveness, common sense dictates that Ravindra Jadeja is a better option, possessing the ability to alter any match situation through his explosive batting, left-arm spin and energetic fielding — all of which make him a match-winner. Vijay Shankar is another all-rounder in whom the selectors had reposed faith, but he was shown the door after a couple of indifferent performances at the World Cup, and the sinewy Dube made his debut on Sunday.
Middle-order: There’s room for a middle-order batsman and a young dynamic opener as Kohli, Sharma, Hardik and wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant are automatic picks. While the opening slot still remains contentious, and despite his indifferent form, Shikhar Dhawan might still board the plane to Australia considering his prolific record in that country. Such a scenario would leave Shreyas Iyer, Sanju Samson, Manish Pandey, KL Rahul and Shubman Gill battling it out for one remaining spot.