The world is still battling the coronavirus, but sports events all over the world have resumed with necessary precautions. International cricket restarted with England hosting the West Indies for a three-Test series. However, the Indian Premier League (IPL) was the tournament that cricketing fans all over the globe were waiting for, and it delivered more than what it promised even though it was held outside India.
In uncertain and gloomy times like the COVID-19 pandemic, the IPL brought relief and happiness to millions who were deprived of watching the game for the past few months. Now that the IPL is over, the focus has again turned towards international matches, with New Zealand having hosted the West Indies and set to host Pakistan, and the Men in Blue being in action Down Under to take on the Australians.
The India-Australia rivalry has always been a fierce one, and both teams have striven to pick the best players in their squads to win the bragging rights. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) announced the revised squads for the tour on the 9th November, after Virat Kohli was granted paternity leave and Rohit Sharma was included in the Test squad.
As is the case with every squad announcement, this one too created a controversy with the exclusion of certain names. The exclusions were highlighted by the media and pundits, but some inclusions went under the radar. With the limited-overs leg of the tour done and dusted and the all-important Border-Gavaskar Trophy coming up, here is a look at a few things wrong with India’s Test squad in Australia.
Exclusion of Suryakumar Yadav
The most obvious and unjust one to start the list. The exclusion of Suryakumar Yadav from not just the Test squad, but also both limited-overs squads, was the most shocking aspect of the squad announcement. SKY or Surya, as he is fondly known among his peers, performed consistently in the domestic circuit before the lockdown.
Also, he has been one of the top scorers and star performers for the Mumbai Indians since re-joining the franchise in 2018. Despite being surrounded by international superstars like Rohit Sharma, Kieron Pollard and Hardik Pandya, ‘SKY’ remained unfazed, and with his talent, dedication and above all, his impeccable temperament, anchored and steadied the volatile batting lineup time and again.
In fact, he has been one of the mainstays of the innately competitive franchise in the IPL for the past three years; a no mean feat. The Mumbai-born batsman has scored a total of 1,416 runs in the last three IPL seasons at an average of 36.3 while playing as an opener, as No. 3 or as No. 4. Most significantly, he ended the Ranji Trophy season for Mumbai with 508 runs in five matches.
Yadav had the best average of 113 among the Mumbai batsmen in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, scoring 226 runs in four innings. He was also the third-highest run-getter in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament with 392 runs in ten innings. Apart from the impressive numbers, he is an exceptional fielder, as was highlighted by his catches in IPL 2020 and is a good leader with a calm head on his shoulders.
In a recent interview, Gautam Gambhir, who captained Yadav while at the Kolkata Knight Riders, said that he chose the now 30-year-old as his vice-captain because of his leadership skills and wanted him to take over the captaincy.
This shocking exclusion did get the limelight it deserved, with the selectors and the BCCI president being questioned about it. This may mean that barring a huge drop in form or an injury, Suryakumar Yadav could find his name in an Indian senior squad sooner, rather than later.
Inclusion of Prithvi Shaw and Rishabh Pant in the Test squad
In my opinion, there are two eyebrow-raising inclusions in the Test squad: Prithvi Shaw and Rishabh Pant. Eyebrow-raising because the technique and temperament of both these players cry out for the limited-overs versions of the game. If Yadav’s temperament, technique and performances do not fetch him a Test spot, then what is it that warrants the selection of Pant and Shaw in the squad?
Shaw announced himself onto the cricketing stage with impressive performances on the domestic circuit and earned himself a call-up to the senior team against England in 2018. Although he batted well on his Test debut against the West Indies, his performances since have always been “almost there”.
Shaw is a good stroke-player, but has found it difficult to convert good starts into big scores, something that is vital for a good Test match batsman. In the matches against New Zealand, he managed just one half-century in four innings, scoring only 98 runs in total. Shaw has always shown the tendency to play one shot too many and throw his wicket away.
Further, even his form in the recently concluded IPL was abysmal and discouraging, where he managed just 228 runs in 13 games. The Mumbai-born opener is talented, but needs to iron out the flaws in his game to become a solid test opener. Fortunately, he is just 21 years old and has a lot of time to do so.
However, to put up a fight against Australia, India will need to start games on the front foot and need to look at more solid players to open the innings. A tough and highly competitive Australian tour is certainly not the place for a 21-year-old to iron out his very obvious technical flaws.
Another player who has also been a “almost there” player is 23-year-old Rishabh Pant. The Delhi batsman has many things in common with Shaw, as he is also a genuine stroke-player, but like Shaw fails to put a price on his wicket more often than not.
Pant has failed to capitalise on the complete backing that he enjoys from the selectors, the coach and the captain. Although most players have their own unique style of play, to be consistently effective they have to create harmony between their natural style of play and the requirement of the situation.
Pant had the chance to learn this from the best in business: Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, but sadly he has failed to do so. A suspect temperament and a flawed technique, where he more often than not loses his balance while hitting the ball may be the reasons for this failure. Like Shaw, in the New Zealand Test series, Pant managed a dismal 60 runs in four innings.
Pant’s wicketkeeping abilities have also come into question on many occasions. Although he is an athletic individual, Pant has made some extremely basic wicket-keeping mistakes. His keeping error in the second T20I against Bangladesh at Rajkot last year, where he collected the ball ahead of the stumps giving Liton Das a huge lifeline, epitomises his lack of finetuning.
Additionally, he has very obviously struggled to keep wickets in the difficult English and Australian conditions. For this tough tour, the selectors have rightly reposed their faith in the very capable Wriddhiman Saha, but Pant as his understudy is highly debatable and unfair to somebody like Sanju Samson, who is both a better batsman and a better wicketkeeper than Pant.
Both Pant and Shaw are talented individuals, but thrusting unfinished youngsters into the metaphoric cyclone of the cricketing world is neither fair to the players nor to Indian cricket.
The announcement of squads always ignites passionate debates in a cricket-crazy country like India, and the job of the selectors is always unenviable. To restrict the choice to only 16 or 17 players out of a vast sea of talent is indeed challenging and testing.
Consequently, the intentions of the selectors are always doubted, and the motives questioned. And if the selection committee commits an “exclusion blunder” like Yadav and “inclusion blunders” like Pant and Shaw, then the questioning and doubting become justified…undeniably!