India’s team for the World Test Championship (June 18-22) and the 5-Test series against England that follows (August4-September 6) announced recently has been welcomed by everybody for its composition, balance and richness of talent. It’s not often that selectors are lauded so unanimously!
However, this selection cannot obscure how perilous life is at the highest level in Indian cricket currently, as highlighted by the fate of Prithvi Shaw and Kuldeep Yadav. Both these players — and their fans — will be hugely disappointed that they could not make the cut despite the squad being of 24 players, including four stand-bys.
Till the last tour of Australia, these two were certainties in the Test team. But their fortunes have slumped dramatically since and they don’t figure in the top 20 Test players in the country currently as others have leapfrogged over them.
Actually, there are two other major players missing from the Test squad, Hardik Pandya and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, but I’ve kept them out of the same cluster as Shaw and Kuldeep as both have been victims of prolonged injury and/or rehabilitation, not so much form.
Bhuvaneshwar missed the last tour of Australia because of a hamstring problem, returned for the white ball series’s at home against England, showed decent form, but in the IPL starting missing games against because of injury.
With his ability to swing the ball late, and with splendid control, he would have been an asset in England. But there is no assurance he can last an entire tour. Not only are his recoveries taking longer than expected, but the injuries seem to be recurring. Despite his undoubted skills, Bhuvaneshwar is high risk as far as selectors and team management is concerned.
Hardik’s case is somewhat different. He had a serious back injury which kept him out of the game for a long period after the World Cup. For over a year now, he’s been building up strength in the back, but his bowling spells have been few: so few, in fact, that he couldn’t retain his place in the Test team when India went to Australia.
Hardik’s got the support of the team management. Skipper Virat Kohli has frequently said that the Baroda all-rounder is one of the key players for the T20 World Cup and so shouldn’t been burdened with bowling till he is not in danger of breaking down again.
But this has meant losing his place in the Test side. He would have been a prized player in England as a support fast bowler to Burmah, Shami, Ishant to go with his batting at number 6. This would have allowed the team the luxury of four fast bowlers and two spinners (Ashwin and Jadeja) in the playing XI.
But if he is not bowling, Hardik’s value in Tests gets considerably diminished. There are enough specialist batsmen and fast bowlers to fill whatever gap needs to be filled at a particular point in time in the series.
Unlike Bhuvaneshwar and Hardik, Shaw and Kuldeep have been dumped from the Test squad for loss of form.
Shaw had a spectacular career as a junior cricketer, breaking sundry records, going on to captain the India under-19 team to the World Cup, which fast tracked him into first-class and then Test cricket, all within the span of a year.
He made a century on debut against West Indies in 2018, but before the accolades had died down, was sent back mid-way through the Australia tour in 2018-19 for reasons of injury as well as indiscipline.
Since then, Shaw’s struggled. He regained his Test place for the tour of New Zealand in 2019-20, just about held on to it when the team toured Australia in 2020-21, lost it again after a two poor batting performances in the first Test.
In two Tests against West Indies, Shaw had scored 237 runs, in three subsequent Tests, he has managed only 102 runs. Not just the sequence of low scores, but also the manner of his dismissals – mainly through loose shots – influenced the selectors into rejecting him this time.
Shaw’s only 21, and has played only 5 Tests as yet so it can’t be that his career is under threat of imminent demise. But that he doesn’t figure among the top four Test openers in the country (these are Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Mayank Agarwal and K L Rahul), shows that the road back into the team for him is not going to be easy.
Kuldeep Yadav’s situation is not dissimilar to Shaw’s, except that he’s a bowler. While not a child prodigy like Shaw, Kuldeep nevertheless made an instant impact at the under-19 with his left-arm wrist spin bowling.
On Test debut, against Australia in 2017 (fourth Test, Dharamsala), he picked up four wickets, leaving the Aussie batsmen bamboozled and captain Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri gushing at their `mystery’ asset.
Within a few months, Kuldeep had made his debut in ODIs and T20s to instant success, forging a partnership with Yuzvendra Chahal which forced Ravi Ashwin out of the limited-overs teams. By the end of the year, Kuldeep was being touted as the best first choice spinner by the team management.
In more than three years since Kuldeep has played only 6 more Tests after his debut. His wicket tally isn’t bad – 26 from 7 Tests, but the returns started diminishing, especially overseas, which allowed the selectors to examine other options.
He went wicketless in the Lord’s Test in 2018. Conditions were not conducive to spin bowling, but this was to mar his selection to in the playing XI for the remainder of the series. In Australia in 2018-19, he had a decent match at Sydney picking up 5 wickets, without quite appearing to run through the opposition.
Kuldeep’s mediocre fielding and batting was introduced into discussions on his being in the playing XI, and he started to lose out. Under threat from emerging spinners, both R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja tightened up their game, upped the ante and fixed their slots in the playing side.
Kuldeep was gradually pushed into a position where he could be considered for home matches as the third spinner. Against England last season at home, though Jadeja was out through injury, he was upstaged by Axar Patel, playing only one Test match.
Like Shaw, Kuldeep too has age on his side. He’s just 26 which is when spinners tend to get to their best if they have soaked in enough experience and learned from it. But like Shaw again, it should worry him that he is not considered among the top four spinners in the country. Those who’ve earned the passage to England are Ashwin, Jadeja, Axar and Washington Sundar.
The travails of Shaw and Kuldeep, and to an extent even Hardik and Bhuvaneshwar, are symptomatic for all but a handful of players in Indian cricket currently. Apart from Kohli, Rohit, Bumrah, Pant, Ashwin and Jadeja every other player is under pressure to keep his place in the side.
Competition for slots in the Indian Test team is more intense than ever before as there are multiple options that selectors can consider. This obviously reflects the cricketing strength in the country, but for the individual player, it leaves little margin for error. In aptitude and attitude, he must be top of his game at all times.