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Four years after he was discarded from the T20 set-up, R Ashwin has forced his way back into the India squad and is among a group of 15 players picked for the 2021 T20 World Cup. In another big surprise move, the BCCI has roped in former captain MS Dhoni as the team mentor specifically for this tournament. Dhoni, who retired from international cricket last August, was appointed to “provide support and direction,” to the Indian team management led by head coach Ravi Shastri. So said BCCI secretary Jay Shah.
The main group of 15 comprises six specialist batters, three all-rounders, three specialist spinners, and three specialist fast bowlers. The selection panel led by former India fast bowler Chetan Sharma also named the trio of Shreyas Iyer, Deepak Chahar, and Shardul Thakur as reserves, who will act as injury or Covid-19 replacements.
Among the notable absentees were Shikhar Dhawan, who captained India in their short limited-overs to Sri Lanka, and lead legspinner Yuzvendra Chahal. Instead, the selection committee opted for mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy and legspinner Rahul Chahar who, along with Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan, and Axar Patel are heading into their first World Cup.
‘Ashwin is an asset’
Two spin-bowling allrounders along with three specialist spinners make it abundantly clear that the Indian selectors expect the pitches in the UAE will be quite slow, especially after they take on the workload of 31 IPL matches.
This is also why Sharma and his panel have picked just three frontline quicks in Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and Mohammed Shami with Hardik as the seam-bowling allrounder.
“If the wickets are such that you can only play two fast men, there is no point then to the bench (the extra fast bowlers). Instead, you have utility players who will come in handy at some point in the match and that is why you have spinners and all-rounders,” Sharma said on Wednesday in his first media briefing upon taking charge as the chairman of selectors earlier in the year.
While Dhoni naturally captures the headlines, the return of Ashwin, whose last T20 match for India was on the tour of West Indies in July 2017, was equally significant. In 2019 Ashwin had noted that he was no slouch in white-ball cricket and it was a “perception” that wrist spinners are better than finger spinners, especially in the limited-overs format, that had kept him out of the Indian squad.
Ashwin has missed 63 T20Is for India but in that time he has continued to be a threat in the IPL, first for the Punjab Kings and now for the Delhi Capitals.
This March Ashwin said he found questions about his return to India’s white-ball teams “laughable” but was confident he would produce “a game-breaking performance” if given a chance.
“When you got to a World Cup you need an offspinner,” Sharma said. “The wickets are likely to be low and slow as the IPL’s latter half will be played in the UAE and that will help the spinners. Washington Sundar is part of the injured list and Ashwin has been an asset for the team and the way he has performed in the IPL that is the reason he has found a place in the team.”
Why no Chahal?
On the omission of Chahal, Sharma indicated that the selectors found Rahul Chahar to be the better option as a lead legspinner. “You want a spinner who can deliver with more speed. Recently we have seen Rahul Chahar bowling with speed. Our view was we need a spinner who can find the grip off the surface at a quicker speed and while we had a lot of discussion on Chahal, we eventually went with Rahul Chahar.”
The Indian selectors were also bullish about Chakravarthy, who has done well since the 2020 IPL where he took big wickets like Dhoni’s while playing for the Kolkata Knight Riders. While he was picked for the Australia series that followed and then the home series against England, Chakravarthy did not turn up owing to fitness issues. But he did eventually play in the recent Sri Lanka series.
According to Sharma, the “main reason” for Chakravarthy’s inclusion was that he is a “mystery” spinner. “The world doesn’t know what Varun Chakravarthy is. If we ourselves cannot understand (how to read him) what will the batsman know? He also has a good economy of 5.”
No Kohli in selectors’ three openers
As far as the openers were concerned, Sharma was categorical about Kohli not being one of them despite the Indian captain wanting to do so after a short stint during the back end of the England series in March. Sharma said Rohit and Rahul would be the main opening pair with Kishan as the third opener.
Kishan, who hit a fifty on both T20I and ODI debut this year, had been one of the most potent top-order batters when the IPL was played in the UAE last year. He beat Iyer, who has been injured and out of action for the last six months, for the extra batter’s slot with Sharma saying they had reservations about picking players who have been “out of cricket for so long.”
“Kishan can bat as an opener as well as he can fit into the middle order anytime,” Sharma said. “And a left-hand option is always important. If the opposition has legspinners then an explosive left-hander is always important. So Ishan Kishan is giving us a lot of opportunities: if we need an opener he can do that having already done that and got a fifty in his first game. In the middle-order, he is a good player of spin.”
As far as Kohli’s opening was concerned, Sharma said the selectors believe he is better as the pivot in the middle order. “If the need of the hour is that the management thinks that Virat should open then that is up to them, but for the moment we have three openers – Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, and Ishan Kishan. Virat is an asset to the team. When he plays in the middle-order the team players around him.”
Sharma said Kishan would also double-up as a back-up wicketkeeper to Rishabh Pant while Rahul was selected as a “genuine” opener.
Sharma was diplomatic on why Dhawan, who has been among the best batters in the last three IPLs, could not find a spot. “He is a very important player for us. He was the captain of Sri Lanka. What discussion we had on him, I can’t disclose. But he is there in the loop. The need of the hour was that we wanted to look at other players while we give rest to Dhawan.”
Pandya is 100% fit to a bowl and why no Natarajan
One fast bowler who is bound to feel disappointed would be T Natarajan who has experienced a fairy tale journey since his heroics for Sunrisers Hyderabad in the 2020 IPL. However, a knee injury following his triumphant return from Australia has resulted in falling down the pecking order.
“The selectors do think about having a variation in the bowling line-up,” Sharma said. “We also discussed the wickets (being slow) so the selectors decided to have three fast bowlers with Hardik Pandya as the fourth (fast) bowler. We definitely had a discussion on T Natarajan, but he hasn’t played cricket for a long time and he is part of the injury list and that is the reason we stuck to the main guys.”
Sharma was clear that Hardik would bowl his entire quota of overs, something he has not done consistently since his return from back surgery in 2020. Hardik has bowled just 46 overs for India in this period. He hasn’t bowled at all for Mumbai since the 2020 IPL although that is likely to change come the second half of the season.
“If you have seen the recent matches, Hardik Pandya is absolutely fit,” Sharma said. “He is going to bowl his quota of overs, there’s no problem. We were trying to preserve him, we did not want to have a (bad) situation before the World Cup, but he is 100% fit (to bowl).”