Team India Experiment With Bruised Australia
Gamble on strategy, betting on personnel, icily close to the big tournament
Within days of the suspenseful Asia Cup ending with team India ticking several boxes ahead of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2023, controversial strategies and team line ups were back on the table as India challenged a bruised and recovering Australia for the no.1 spot.
In a veritable dress rehearsal against a five-time World Cup winning team, team India are showing a bizarre fearlessness and a confused practice policy of rest and rotation heading into the bilateral one day internationals. This has courted controversy and confusion by resting four frontline players and declaring virtual two different squads for the three match series.
In what might be more the point, is the idea of home advantage as Australia arrives in India on the back of a humiliating defeat to South Africa. India are once again rolling the dice.
While the issue of Shreyas Iyer is still a hot topic of debate and discussion, the Asia Cup final became as much about Mohammad Siraj topping India’s best batsman. His superlative strike bowling decimated Sri Lanka in an anti climatic finish.
India had also brought about as many as five changes for the inconsequential Super 4 match against Bangladesh which India eventually lost. That the changes were not directly in line with India’s World Cup squad is what has baffled fans and pundits alike.
Temba Bavuma, the South African captain, highlighted the importance of personality and character of the dressing room in making a phenomenal comeback, but also of the crucial factor of winning momentum. Despite the fact that Australia were missing four crucial figures in captain Pat Cummins, fast bowler Mitchell Starc, Steve Smith and also, Glenn Maxwell, it showed great character for South Africa to turn their own ship around from choppy waters. The likes of Heinrich Klaasen, Marco Jansen, Quinton de Kock, Aidan Markram and spinners, Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi all played crucial roles.
While a full strength squad is expected in India as part of the World Cup preparations, is India missing a beat in resting some of its frontline players for the first two of only three matches when sharpening one’s match fitness and presence of mind might be more the need of the hour?
Having won the Asia Cup, wouldn’t momentum as a factor apply as much to India as they seek only their third World Cup trophy in the nation’s otherwise proud bilateral history?
However the announcement of a dual squad for the three match series against Australia highlights a crucial anomaly. Team India still have some reservations which would explain why in light of Axar Patel’s concerning injury in the latter half of the Asia Cup, the selectors had not only called upon Washington Sundar for the final but also, have brought back Ravichandran Ashwin in the mix although neither is in the World Cup foray presently.
While Ashwin’s credentials are not in doubt, India’s bench strength and the logic behind selection could be questioned given that Ashwin last played for team India in the 50 overs format in January 2022 against South Africa and that too was poignantly a call to the national team after five years in the wilderness when he was not selected after 2017.
For starters, the captain himself, Rohit Sharma, has been rested. “Given a breather,” was how the chief national selector and former Indian cricketer, Ajit Agarkar put it, to describe why Virat Kohli, vice captain Hardik Pandya and Kuldeep Yadav were being rested for the first two matches, emphasising that it was not just physical but also, mental faculties that need to be replenished.
While on the face of it, the logic cannot be denied, the timing is rather dubious given that one would be hard pressed to remember if any of these Indian cricketers actually took a break in the course of the gruelling months of the Indian Premier League, particularly in the year of a World Cup.
If India are wary of revealing their cards too early, which would be bizarre given how India and Australia have played each other over the past decade notwithstanding the heavy presence of players from down under in the IPL, it also seems equally illogical that if such a showdown was scheduled ahead of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2023, it must be with the idea that playing against the best team in the world would only sharpen their skill sets.
That does not seem to be the case if India would not even field a close to full strength playing eleven. Furthermore given how much time Rohit Sharma has missed with the team since taking over as captain and with the pressure of a World Cup level trophy hanging over him, even with a changing squad, one would think the captain would have wanted as much time in the match duration itself to sharpen his own tenacity to handle the team and effect changes on the go while in the heat of the battle.
While Agarkar assured that all the players lined up for the World Cup will play the final match against Australia, and India might consider themselves extremely fortunate that Shreyas Iyer’s dubious injury – a back spasm, conveniently allowed team India to test their player of choice, K.L. Rahul, who did make the most of the opportunity, it seems highly unlikely that the one odd match is going to do much for the team garnering knowledge as a whole or give an accurate insight about the players’ match readiness for an occasion as big as the World Cup.
Speaking practically, it was Pakistan who held any true potential to test India’s core batting strength for the duration of the Asia Cup 2023. An interesting first match between the two nations was cut short by rain and the second one won handsomely by India in the end as Pakistan’s batting crawled under the pressure of chasing down a mammoth score.
While cricket fans relished the prospect of another India versus Pakistan clash on the field in a potential final, the opportunity was thwarted in a nail biter that saw Pakistan tie with Sri Lanka in their final Super 4 match and be denied. Besides, it subverted another controversy brewing on the sidelines about the morality of playing Pakistan at the time of the Kokernag encounter when India lost brave soldiers in the battle against the terrain and state sponsored terrorists across the border.
But if India might have had several boxes ticked about their batsmen being in good nick and their batting order generally in better shape than anticipated, the word “settled” becoming a little more cautiously used which was not the case prior to the tournament, the reserves continue to be a matter of intrigue. While the likes of Jasprit Bumrah returning from injury and Mohammad Siraj performing beyond expectations was heartening, India also need a ready backbone to bolster and rotate as the World Cup takes on a different format with ten teams vying for ultimate glory.
The staging of the Asia Cup and more pointedly the timing around the monsoons and the venue division between nations Pakistan and Sri Lanka were not the only talking points at the Asia Cup.
When the likes of Tilak Varma were handed the India cap and Suryakumar Yadav, there was a case of testing India’s bench strength but it was hardly the occasion given the big tournament around the corner. Sanjay Manjrekar was amongst those few former cricketers who supported the obvious move which would have made sense in a dead rubber at any other time in India’s cricket history.
“Excellent selection by India. Makes an important statement. Shows that priority is Indian cricket, above everything else” Manjrekar said. But his views haven’t found many supporters and for good reason.
Even if India are looking at the interests of the team beyond the World Cup, which is a noble cause about future and succession planning, one has to question the timing given this close to the World Cup and uncertainty still being pronounced in certain areas, no less than the batting line up.
As astute fans rightly pointed out, how does it make sense to field players not in contention to make the World Cup squad in less than a month’s time, even as a replacement to be taking up a spot in the playing eleven when another fringe player in India’s World Cup squad might have benefitted from more time in the middle? Team India continue to gamble on strategy, betting on personnel, icily close to the big tournament.