How should India go about picking its T20 squad for the 2020 World Cup?

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The just-concluded series against the West Indies (and the forthcoming T20 matches) provide the Indian T20 team a great opportunity to have a good look at itself and rebuild from scratch

“It would take a brave soul to overlook KL Rahul, who has been scoring explosively.” | Vivek Bendre

After the first two encounters between India and West Indies drew a win each for both teams, the series decider was nicely set up. For India, this match represented payback time; back in 2016, in the World T20 semifinal at the very same ground, a sedate start had cost India dearly as they were outgunned by an explosive West Indian team who kept the scoring rate in check by regularly scoring sixes. History wouldn’t repeat itself this time round as India embraced the West Indies approach and posted an insurmountable total to win the match and the series.

The just-concluded series against the West Indies (and the forthcoming T20 matches) provide the Indian T20 team a great opportunity to have a good look at itself and rebuild from scratch. For far too long, especially while batting first, the Indian team has floundered by not maximising the batting resources available and misguidedly valuing wickets a lot more than required in the shortest format of the game; rather than focussing on runs per over, the batsmen have been guilty of “playing themselves in”. This attitude would have reminded seasoned cricket fans of flippant students who hadn’t kept up with the changes in the syllabus and had been flummoxed by the same question over and over again.

Compared to the more-or-less settled ODI squad (barring two or three places), India’s T20 squad is in a state of flux right now and it has been this way for quite a while. If one were to ask the question (ignoring fitness concerns for the time being) of who would be surefire starters in this squad based on their performances and available alternatives, the list is pretty slim. Barring Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah, every other spot in the team is possibly fair game and there are no guarantees. With only 15 spots in a World T20 squad, the last one or two players to make the cut a few months from now may not necessarily be the best choices but may be selected for flexibility based on the roles that the team is looking to fill (eg. left-arm pacer, backup keeper, 3-dimensional player and so on).

Ideally, the team should look at having eight solid batting options and six reliable bowling options (each of whom can bowl three overs or more on average), which will cover all bases in most matches. Anything short of this will leave the team short of the finishing line when the worst-case scenario presents itself, invariably in a knockout match. And the only way this is possible with a team of 11 players is to have three or more all-rounders who can do both competently (bat explosively and bowl economically), which means all-rounders are at a premium (more on this later). With this framework in place, we can proceed to dissect and examine team roles along the pure batsman to pure bowler continuum.

Pure batsmen (including wicket keeper)

Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli are undisputed starters in this format, though Kohli needs to do more in terms of emulating Rohit Sharma (getting off to a blazing start and keeping it going). To be fair to Kohli, he has attempted this strategy in the recent series. Though Shikhar Dhawan had been in decent form (in the ODIs) before he got injured, on current form, it would take a brave soul to overlook KL Rahul, who has been scoring explosively. Being the best top-3 in ODI cricket, these same personnel were guilty of importing the same wickets-in-hand-is-worth-two-in-the-bush approach to T20Is, but this series has shown what can happen if there are two players who can go all out from the first ball. The wicketkeeper and the middle-order slots are up for grabs, with no clear-cut contender at the moment (who knows, Dhoni might still make it if he has a great IPL).

Batsmen who can bowl

For years, especially in the ODI format, the Indian team had been blessed with part-time bowlers who could slip in a few cheap overs (especially the middle overs), thus lessening the pressure on the regular bowlers. Tendulkar, Ganguly, Sehwag, Raina, Yuvraj and others have performed this role admirably, even filling in for regular bowlers and winning matches from their bowling contributions. This flexibility was one of the crucial factors that helped the Indian team field a side stacked with 7 batsmen when there was no genuine all-rounder in sight. However, this stream has dried up recently and the ODI team under Dhoni had to turn to Jadhav (whose record shows that he is only a regular batsman despite his initial success) to fill in this role; in the earlier days, Kohli and Rohit did chip in with the odd over or two, but it hasn’t turned into a regular feature after the initial experiments. With the T20 format, the margin for error is even less and such a bowler should probably expect an over at best, in the direst of circumstances. Any batsman who can develop such an ability to bowl a parsimonious over or two will put himself at an advantage with respect to his peers.

Genuine all-rounders

Not much explanation is needed here — they come in two flavours based on the style of bowling, spin and medium pace. While Hardik Pandya has nailed down one spot, given his injury record, Shivam Dube and Vijay Shankar need the exposure for insurance. Among the spinners, Krunal Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja are in contention, with the latter having stepped up his big-hitting game recently. Depending on how things turn out over the next few months, four of them could easily make the 15-member squad.

Bowlers who can bat

Washington Sundar, Deepak Chahar, and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar fall into this category, with the former possibly having greater hitting ability than the other two. Imagine a batting line-up having one — or all three — of them at number 8 and lower—this would easily help the batsmen bat a lot more freely, as they would know that they have support to follow.

Pure bowlers

Jasprit Bumrah is the world’s best death bowler and would easily be the first name on a World-XI, leave alone an Indian one. The others can’t be as certain — Shami, and the wrist spin twins. While they all are compelling options, none of them offer such world-class bowling value as Bumrah does.

Therefore, it can be seen from the above analysis that the players that bring maximum flexibility and depth are the genuine all-rounders, as they can perform multiple roles; it is no surprise that West Indian players are in great demand in this format as they understand the grammar of the game. If genuine all-rounders are not available, depending on the personnel available, a team could make do with a batsman or a bowler performing the other role on a good day, but this is not reliable. And without such personnel, there is too much pressure on the specialists to not have a bad day. With more than half the team yet to be identified, the key to getting the T20 squad balance right lies in identifying multi-skilled players

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