India named a strong 20-man squad for a four month long tour to England starting with the final of the World Test Championship against New Zealand from the 18th of June in Southampton. They then play a five-Test series against the hosts which begins in early August and concludes sometime in mid September. Although, the squad was pretty much on expected lines with some big names making a comeback, the omission of a few others was a bit surprising.
Prithvi Shaw had a tough last couple of years - he fought depression in 2019 before getting into a low after being dropped from the India Test squad post his failure in the Day and Night series opener at the Adelaide Oval in December 2020. He had also witnessed a dramatic change in fortunes in the IPL in the UAE ending the tournament with a string of single-digit scores.
But a determined and resolute Shaw went back and did the hard yards in training, rectified his technical flaws and came back with a bang in the 2021 Vijay Hazare Trophy where he was the highest run-getter amassing a record 827 runs in 8 matches at a stunning strike rate of 138.29 with 4 hundreds. He was also in devastating form for the Delhi Capitals in IPL 2021 scoring 308 runs in 8 innings again at a blistering scoring rate of 166.48 - scoring big runs at the top of the order at a high strike rate annihilating the opposition bowling attacks - Shaw was at his destructive best in the IPL again giving a glimpse of his prodigious talent and abilities.
With Shubman Gill in poor form in the home series against England and in the IPL and Mayank Agarwal also not in favour with the selectors since the tour Down Under, this was the ideal time to include Shaw in the Indian continent - with his confidence sky-high he would have been the ideal partner for Rohit at the top of the order. He has the ability and skill to do as an opener what the great Virender Sehwag did for India in the early 2000s - score big runs at a blitzkrieg pace putting the opposition on the backfoot.
The selectors missed a trick by not picking Shaw in the Indian squad to England. It may come to haunt the team later. In the form that he is in, Shaw should have started in the first XI for India alongside Rohit Sharma. Maybe the thinking was not to expose him in England but with not much cricket possible in India due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this was not a very wise call by the selectors. Some reports suggest that fitness was an issue with Shaw. But then there have been enough greats who have played for India who were not necessarily the fittest on the field.
Hardik Pandya last played a Test for India, interestingly in Southampton in 2018. He was in poor form in IPL 2021 scoring just 52 runs in 6 innings with five failures with the bat. Hardik has provided the Test XI balance in overseas conditions in the past allowing India to go with the 5 + 1 + 1 + 4 combination (batsmen, wicket-keeper, all-rounder, bowlers). His useful and accurate medium pace bowling would have been the ideal support act the faster men needed giving them a break allowing them to bowl short and focused spells.
But with the selectors making it clear that Hardik is not in a position to bowl in whites for India, the decision was already made. Hardik- the batsman had not done enough to warrant a place in the squad purely on the merit of his batting. Yes, he was in sublime form in IPL 2020 and also produced two scintillating 90s for India in the ODI series in Australia but the selectors went with recent form and from what they saw in IPL 2021, Hardik was a far cry from the destructive X-factor he has been in the middle order for India and the Mumbai Indians.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar has a fine record in Test cricket with 63 wickets in 21 matches at an average of 26.09 and strike rate of 53.10. He also has a stellar record in England where his variety in bowling - a mix of swing and seam has benefitted in the local conditions. Kumar has picked 19 wickets in 5 Tests in England with his 6-82 in the first innings playing a pivotal role in India’s famous victory at Lord’s in 2014.
But the problem has been that Kumar has been out of the mix and not played Test cricket for India since January 2018 in Johannesburg - ie more than three and a half years. He has been in fine wicket-taking form in ODI cricket for India since 2019 and very economical in the T20I format but that is not good enough to merit a place ahead of any of the Indian pace quartet or even the impressive Mohammed Siraj. Kumar has not played any first class match since the tour of South Africa in 2018.
He was also in poor form with the ball for the Sunrisers Hyderabad in IPL 2021 neither being able to pick wickets nor control the flow of runs with the new ball.
Yet, given the conditions in England would be ideal for his type of bowling, he could have been included as the sixth seamer, maybe ahead of Shardul Thakur but that would have been unfair on the latter given his impressive showing for India in the last few months.
Navdeep Saini showed promise in Australia but has only represented India in two Test matches. He was not a part of India’s squad to face England in the home series earlier this year and did not have a great IPL 2021 where he was dropped after playing just a solitary match for the Challengers in which he was taken for aplenty. Saini bowls with pace and can generate extra bounce. He hits the deck hard and is not necessarily a swing bowler. Thus, his kind of bowling is more suited to the pitches in South Africa and Australia and not the ones in England where swing and seam are more rewarding qualities than raw pace.
Kuldeep Yadav did play the second Test against England in Chennai earlier this year but was completely overshadowed by the other two spinners in the Indian XI - R Ashwin and Axar Patel. After a great start to his career across formats, the left-arm chinaman has faded out, both at the international level and in the IPL.
Yadav was in great form in international cricket (and in the IPL) from 2017 till the first quarter of 2019 but thereafter his form saw a dramatic decline. Since April 2019, he has played just 23 matches across the three formats and picked 24 wickets at an average of 48.41 and strike rate of 49.5.
Yadav picked 17 wickets in the 2018 edition of the IPL but saw his form dip in the last couple of seasons. He bagged just 4 wickets in 9 matches in 2019 and a solitary wicket in 5 matches in 2020. Such poor was his form that KKR did not give him a game in IPL 2021.
Given his numbers there is no way the selectors could have chosen Yadav in the squad over impressive performers like Washington Sundar or Axar Patel.
If a wrist spinner had to be included it should have been Rahul Chahar who gave two high impact performances for the Mumbai Indians in IPL 2021 and was the leading wicket-taker amongst spinners in the tournament.