The No. 8 slot, the third spinner, and the fourth seamer are set to be the other contentious topics when the selectors pick the squad for the tournament
How close are Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul to full fitness and selection? Do India take a punt on Tilak Varma based on his spectacular batting form in the T20Is against West Indies, or do they back Suryakumar Yadav despite his “really bad” ODI numbers?
Does Ishan Kishan play the dual role of back-up wicketkeeper and reserve batter? Who among Axar Patel, Shardul Thakur and Yuzvendra Chahal misses out? What about Prasidh Krishna, who lines up for an international comeback after more than a year?
These are some of the key questions for the Ajit Agarkar-led senior men’s selection committee to address when they convene to pick India’s Asia Cup squad. Ideally, their squad for this tournament would lay down the blueprint for the 15 they pick for the World Cup, but India’s situation at present is far from ideal. Two first-choice players haven’t yet been passed fit. Two others will be making a comeback during the Ireland T20Is after a substantial gap.
This is perhaps why it’s entirely possible the selectors could look at naming a bigger pool for the Asia Cup that begins on August 30, before narrowing down on their World Cup squad, which needs to be named by September 5.
A straightforward top seven in an ideal world
Shubman Gill, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli pick themselves in the top three. Iyer and Rahul slot in at four and five, followed by Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja to complete the top seven.
In such a scenario, the only consideration for the selectors will be to identify back-ups in the batting department. But because there are still question marks over Iyer and Rahul, this isn’t as straightforward as it should be. If Rahul doesn’t recover from his thigh injury, Kishan will likely come in as the frontline wicketkeeper. If Iyer isn’t yet fit after rehabilitation from back surgery, the selectors will need to identify a middle-order back-up.
A three-horse race in the middle order
Until recently, Suryakumar and Sanju Samson seemed to be jostling for the middle order back-up spot. But now there’s a third candidate in Tilak, however left-field, because both Suryakumar and Samson haven’t been able to nail down their spots in the 50-overs format.
In 26 ODIs, Suryakumar has scored 511 runs and averages only 24.33. Earlier this week, he made a scathing self-assessment of his performances in the format. “If I am honest with myself, my numbers in ODIs are really bad,” he said. “And there’s no shame in admitting that; everyone knows that already.
“You need to be honest with yourself; but then, getting better is also important. That is what Rohit [Sharma] and Rahul [Dravid] sir have told me, that because I don’t play a lot of ODIs, I need to practice and think as to what I can do. I can take my time, and if I happen to be at the crease in the last 10-15 overs, then I need to think for myself as to what I can do for the team.”
Then there’s Samson. An enigma in white-ball cricket, someone who can play breathtaking strokes from the get-go but has often been riddled with inconsistency. In the two ODIs against West Indies, he made 9 and 51. The half-century was a stunning innings that sustained the tempo set by the openers, but his dismissal left a sense that he’d thrown it away when he needed to capitalise. In the two T20I knocks after that, he made scores of 12 and 7.
This brings us to Tilak, who packs a punch. He brings in the left-handedness India lack in their top five without Rishabh Pant. He also carries with him runs, albeit in the T20I format. He’s uncapped in ODIs, but wise heads in Indian cricket are excited by the potential he has in the format.
Yet, for all the excitement, this race will be a non-starter if both Iyer and Rahul are available. This is because Kishan can double up as back-up keeper and reserve opener.
Siraj, Bumrah, Shami and who?
In the bowling department, Mohammed Siraj and Jasprit Bumrah are certainties. Mohammed Shami is the frontrunner to be the third seamer, and there have been enough signs lately to attest to that. His workloads have been carefully managed in the run-up to the World Cup to ensure India aren’t shortchanged if Bumrah or Siraj pull up.
It’s also likely the selectors will look closely at how Prasidh goes in Ireland on his comeback from a lumbar spine injury. If the Asia Cup squad is to be named before the first game there on August 18, it’s likely they wouldn’t have seen him play in a match environment. However, this much is certain: Prasidh offers a point of difference with his height and ability to hit the deck, which makes him a compelling middle-overs option.
It’s a role he performed prior to his injury, and his ODI record (25 wickets in 14 ODIs at 23.92) underlines that. Then there’s Mukesh Kumar, who made debuts in all formats on the tour of the Caribbean, who has an outside chance along with Jaydev Unadkat, who made his ODI comeback after more than a decade in the West Indies, and brings in the left-arm angle.
The No. 8 dilemma
Kuldeep Yadav‘s consistency in the West Indies ODIs may have made him the No. 1 spinner for now, with Jadeja being the second option. This then leaves open the door for two slots, which could be contested between Shardul Thakur, Prasidh, Axar Patel, and Yuzvendra Chahal.
Shardul lends batting heft at No. 8 in addition to his seam-up. He’s also been in excellent form lately, finishing the West Indies ODI series as the highest wicket-taker. But on surfaces that might aid turn and with India already having two seamers and Hardik, Axar can lend batting insurance lower down in addition to being the third spinner. This could mean leaving out Chahal altogether, of which there have been signs considering he wasn’t picked in any of the ODIs in the West Indies.
Essentially, this call will depend on whether the selectors want to take a punt on one of Suryakumar or Tilak for the reserve batter’s slot or pick an extra specialist bowler in Prasidh or Chahal, which throws open the slim possibility of India reuniting the wristspin twins – Kul-Cha – in a crunch game based on conditions.
The missing offspinner
The only other glaring miss is a genuine frontline offspinner. Among those who can potentially be looked at, R Ashwin played the last of his 113 ODIs in January 2022, while Washington Sundar is on the comeback trail, having missed a lot of top-flight cricket over the past year due to multiple injuries. He featured in the Deodhar and Duleep Trophy without much success but will line up for an India comeback at the Asian Games in China.
Whichever way the selectors go, there will be deliberations aplenty, with the Asia Cup squad giving an inkling of the make-up of the World Cup squad. After the Asia Cup, India play three ODIs at home against Australia prior to the World Cup. Teams have until September 27, the day of the last India-Australia ODI, to make changes to their initial World Cup 15.
Expected Asia Cup squad (assuming everyone available): Rohit Sharma (capt), Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, KL Rahul (wk), Suryakumar Yadav/Tilak Varma, Ishan Kishan (wk), Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, Shardul Thakur, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Siraj, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Axar Patel/Yuzvendra Chahal/Prasidh Krishna.