Barring doing a good turn to Sri Lanka cricket, India’s tour of the emerald isles did not quite deliver anticipated results, nor did it resolve selection issues for the upcoming T20 World Cup. If anything, the situation has become more perplexing for the selectors, and I dare say, skipper Virat Kohli and chief coach Ravi Shastri too.
That India agreed to continue the tour after losing 9 players from the squad because of Krunal Pandya testing positive for Covid was a laudable gesture. There would have been no blame had the BCCI asked the players to skip the last two T20s and return home.
It’s been a little over a year since cricket – domestic and international — resumed post the first wave of the pandemic. But progress has been in fits and starts. Some tours have been cancelled, notably Australia refusing to tour South Africa which cost them a possible place in the WTC final, and in May the IPL got suspended after several players tested positive.
In the circumstances, the BCCI showed magnanimity. Had the last two T20s been junked, the Sri Lanka cricket board, already impoverished, would have suffered a major financial setback. It’s not often that the BCCI has shown sensitivity towards the plight of other cricket boards – barring Australia and England – so this was a wonderful and welcome gesture.
Plaudits must also accrue to the players. Because the risk quotient remains high where the Covid situation is concerned, it was courageous of them (beyond the 9 put in isolation) to agree to play. Even a couple of dissenting voices would have scuttled the last two games as India barely had 11 players eligible to take the field.
In fact, net bowler Sandeep Warrier too was given an India cap in the third match after Navdeep Saini had injured himself in the second in which four other players had been capped! , Most badly hit was the batting, what with Prithivi Shaw, Surya Kumar Yadav, Manish Pandey, and the Pandya brothers not available.
Where providing international exposure to young players is concerned, this worked out well even if by default. But this did not really work where results are concerned. The Sri Lankans, remember, were not at full strength either, missing 4-5 frontline players who had been penalised for breaking the Covid protocol in an earlier series.
On the face of it, India’s performance might not seem too bad. The ODI series was won 2-1, the T20 series lost 1-2, obviously because of the deleterious effect that Krunal Pandya testing positive for Covid had on the squad. But in the overall perspective, there were no major gains.
In fact, some fundamental questions remained unanswered, and a few more arose too where selection for the T20 World Cup is concerned. After all, that was the primary purpose of this tour. The ICC tournament is just about 10 weeks away, and while the IPL, which resumes in the third week of September, will also be a form reckoner, international matches would provide a truer assessment.
Let’s look first at the successes. In my book there are only three: Deepak Chahar, Surya Kumar Yadav, and Rahul Chahar. Deepak not only used the new ball but also showed admirable ability with the bat to help the team to an improbable victory in the second ODI. Without his effort, that series would have been lost too.
Surya Yadav, a free-stroking batsman with an exhilarating array of shots and capacity to improvise, ratified the high rating he gets from experts. It was unfortunate that he had to miss out on the last two T20s to make his stronger his claims for a place in the WC. Young Rahul Chahar took wickets consistently to provide stiff competition to the likes of Chahal and Kuldeep.
Chahal and Kuldeep, along with captain Shikhar Dhawan, Ishan Kishan, and opener Prithvi Shaw were among those who were modestly good. What I mean is that none of them performed extraordinarily to make the selectors, captain or coach sit up and take fresh notice. It was more or less par for the course stuff.
Chahal and Kuldeep - the two wrist spinners, India’s main slow bowlers a couple of years back, had to pick up wickets in clusters and consistently to become top of the mind for the selectors. They did get some success but were far short of being `impact’ players which is what every T20 team now seeks.
They didn’t do enough to dislodge Jadeja, Axar Patel, and Washington as India’s frontline T20 bowlers. In fact, Rahul Chahar, who is also more sprightly in the field, would get ahead of Chahal and Kuldeep if the selection was imminent.
Dhawan was more solid than spectacular, taking on the onus as captain to play anchor and allow others in the top order to play freely. This was both a good tactic and selflessness because he too is looking for a place in the T20 World Cup squad.
With Rohit Sharma and K L Rahul as regular openers, there is at best one spot for another opener. Between Dhawan and Shaw, the former, with his experience and as left-hander, still has the edge. Shaw looked in blistering form when he got going, but also had a couple of cheap dismissals. He’ll have to do superbly in the IPL to get ahead of his Delhi Capitals teammate.
The list of failures, alas, is long and hurt India’s quest for hitting the right balance and combination in the squad for the T20 World Cup.
Bhuvaneshwar Kumar picked up some wickets, but mainly when batsmen were slogging, not in his first spells. While he was steady and accurate, Bhuvi lacked both speed and most importantly late swing which was his strong suit. On this form, it will be difficult for him to regain his place.
Manish Pandey and Sanju Samson, in and out of the Indian team in the past 4-5 years, couldn’t have had a better opportunity to turn the spotlight on themselves. In every match they played, India was seeking runs. Innings of substance was what the team needed, which they failed to deliver, and are skating on thin ice where playing international cricket is concerned.
The Pandya brothers were the biggest disappointments. Krunal had an average time in the middle and a horrid one off it. His misfortune in getting Covid (how did he get affected in the bubble?) not just robbed India of a crucial player, but left the squad devasted. As the T20 WC nears, the case for Axar Patel becomes stronger.
Hardik Pandya’s failure – with bat and ball – was, without doubt, the biggest setback for India. Hardik’s matchwinning all-round skills give the team balance and heft –but only if he is fit and in form. In Sri Lanka, this didn’t seem to be the case. He looked tepid with the bat, and still under physical stress as a bowler.
For the past 18-20 months after his operation, Hardik has been nursed to reach full fitness for the T20 World Cup. The bowling load on him has been reduced –if not entirely done away with – whether he played for India or Mumbai Indians because he was perceived as the X Factor in India’s campaign.
Based on his showing in Sri Lanka, one would imagine the selectors, captain, and coach are on tenterhooks.