India's selection blues: Rest, rotate, experiment?
The new cricket season has kicked off at home. While the Duleep Trophy marked the start of the domestic season, the upcoming One-Day International series between India and Australia, starting September 17, will mark the start of the international season. After steam-rolling the inexperienced Sri Lankans, Virat Kohli-led India will be tested against a more competitive Australian side led by Steve Smith. The expectations are high, with the two young contemporary greats of the game, Kohli and Smith, squaring up against each other.
The focus for the hosts, however, has been on the selected team. Rather, the players who have been left out of the squad picked for the first three ODIs.
As the rested versus rotation policy debate rages on, leading off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja find themselves rested. Then there still remains the unanswered question marks over the future of Ajinkya Rahane and Yuvraj Singh in the shorter format.
As has been the case with most skippers, Kohli, too, wants to have his core team in place for the 2019 World Cup in England. And the selectors are also giving him options to fulfil that vision. But where do Ashwin, Jadeja, Rahane or even Yuvraj, fit into Kohli's vision is yet to be stated explicitly.
Ironically, Ashwin was, in selection committee chairman MSK Prasad's words, “rested”, even as he was busy bowling overs after overs for his county Worcestershire.
Ashwin's “struggles” with the ball in limited-overs cricket in recent times has, reportedly, led Kohli and selectors to look at other options in the spin bowling department. In the past 12 months, Ashwin played in nine ODIs of the 23 India played and picked up eight wickets at an economy rate of 5.73. It included three-wicket hauls in the matches against England and West Indies respectively. He went wicketless in four matches.
However, it must be pointed out that during the last season, Test cricket hogged the limelight, with Team India playing 14 Test matches. So, the team management and selectors have felt the need to rest India's leading bowler in the shorter versions of the game every now and then.
Meanwhile, Jadeja tweeted on Sunday a picture of himself with one of his horses at his farm in Jamnagar along with a message: “Make your comebacks stronger than your setbacks #rajputboy”. He deleted the tweet soon after but not before it had caught the eye of many. Clearly, he was far from happy about his enforced “rest”, treating his omission from the series as a setback.
Jadeja has been one of the most vital cogs in shorter formats for India much before he graduated into a fine Test player spearheading India's wins last season at home. The all-rounder from Saurashtra, whose brilliance in the field, too, has often come to India's rescue, would have never thought that he could be dispensable in the shorter format. But, of the 23 ODI matches India played in the past 12 months, Jadeja featured in 19, scoring only 85 runs and taking eight wickets.
Former star batsman VVS Laxman chose to explain the absence of Jadeja and Ashwin as part of experiments being carried out by the selectors. “After the Champions Trophy, the selection committee took a policy decision. They wanted to have a look at some wrist spinners, which would add variety to the attack,” said Laxman in a promotional event ahead of the India-Australia series. With wrist spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal giving a good account of themselves in Sri Lanka, the selectors and, without doubt, the team management have decided to give them an extended run to test them against a stiffer opposition.
“I sincerely believe Ashwin and Jadeja have been communicated to by the selectors. The selectors must have told them both that they want to try out two wrist spinners who are very talented. It doesn't mean both have been dropped,” said the elegant Hyderabad batsman. The slog overs where the runs were leaking and inability to take regular wickets during that period have been causes of worry for the team, Laxman said.
However, it has been reliably learnt that neither Ashwin nor Jadeja were informed either by the team management or by the selectors. Interestingly, one senior selector had pointed out earlier that some things should be left to the team management to do.
One thing, however, is clear—Ashwin and Jadeja cannot take their place in the playing eleven for granted.
In the quintessential team-man Rahane's case, it is apparent that his position is that of a standby opener after the return of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan in the squad. With third opener K.L. Rahul being tried at number four, and Kedar Jadhav, M.S. Dhoni and Hardik Pandya forming the middle order (with Manish Pandey as yet another option), there appears to be no place for Rahane in Kohli's scheme of things.
His continuous absence from the playing eleven, has got even the great Sunil Gavaskar to question the team management. During the series against Sri Lanka, Gavaskar wrote in his column about how the “nice guys were being left out of the squad”.
“Maybe they should start getting a different hairstyle and some body art done to get picked in the team,” wrote Gavaskar sarcastically.
Laxman was effusive in his praise for Rahane but struggled with a convincing explanation when asked about the Mumbai cricketer's absence from Kohli's ODI XI. “Rahane is one of the elders in the group. It is just that we have a solid left-right combination in Shikhar and Rohit. But Rahane is certainly there in the mix and will get his opportunities,” he said.