Sunday, December 3, 2023

Asia Cup: Can return of familiar faces paper over the cracks for India?

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The Indian Cricket Team comes into the Asia Cup, with more questions than answers. Post the IPL, the team has only played a full-strength squad for the World Test Championship Final, which saw Australia win the title for the first time.

Since then, India has toured the West Indies and Ireland, with vastly different squads, neither of which has solved the issues that have plagued the team since the 2019 World Cup. The Asia Cup represents the final chance to rehearse for the World Cup. Here are things to look out for ahead of India’s Asia Cup campaign:

Batting Order

India boasted a top-heavy batting order at the 2019 World Cup, which did the bulk of the heavy lifting throughout the tournament. However, when the top order failed in the Semi-finals, the team was unable to recover. The selectors and management were unable to find a settled middle order for the tournament, which eventually led to their downfall. The same problem has troubled the Indian Team headed into the 2023 World Cup. Unfortunately, injuries to Shreyas Iyer, KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant have complicated this issue significantly, leaving the selectors searching for answers. 

The team will be buoyed by the return of Iyer and Rahul to the squad. Coach Rahul Dravid has confirmed that Iyer is “fully fit, and has batted and fielded a lot in the camp”. Iyer has looked the most comfortable in the number four slot having scored 805 runs in 20 innings at an average of 47.35 and striking at 94.37. If he is able to come back seamlessly, he could solve a lot of issues for the team by slotting in at four and acting as the glue for the batting lineup. Rahul is set to be available for Super Fours of the Asia Cup, should India qualify, and should be set to return as the wicketkeeper at five having done well at the position, averaging a supreme 54.25 and striking at nearly a run a ball at the position. 

In their absence, the management has backed Surya Kumar Yadav to play the middle-order role, given his incredible T20 exploits, where he averages 46.02 at a strike rate of 172.7. However, the world’s no. 1 T20 batsman has yet to make a mark in the 50-over game, where he averages 24.33 in 24 innings with two half-centuries to his name. 

Yadav has acknowledged his middling numbers in the format, as he has said, “If I am being honest with myself, then I know that my ODI numbers are absolutely bad…but how you can make it better is important”. Despite his middling numbers, the management has continued to back him given his clean ball striking and his ability to win games by himself and it will be interesting to see if he will get game time after Iyer and Rahul return from injury. 

Sanju Samson joins the squad as a travelling reserve, with Tilak Varma making the squad ahead of him. Samson has struggled for consistency in the ODI format, as seen in the West Indies tour, where he scored a fluent 50 in the third ODI after struggling for rhythm in the previous ODIs. However, the potential with Samson is for everyone to see as he averages 55.71 in 50 over format game at a strike rate of 104. 

It remains to be seen if he will be sacrificed from the World Cup squad, in order to accommodate Varma, who has been in incredible form in the shortest format, scoring 343 at an average of 42.88 and a strike rate of 164.11 in the latest season of the IPL and would provide India with the left-handed batting option that they have been seeking in the middle order.

The call for left-handed batsmen in the batting line up has gained steam in recent months, with even former Indian coach Ravi Shastri remarking that there should two left-handers in the top six ideally. However, given that Varma has not played in an ODI yet, would the management be willing to risk playing him at the cost of Samson, who has shown potential in the format? 

Another important thing to look out for is the opening pair. Shubman Gill has made 1258 runs at an average of 66.21 striking at 103.28 as an opener and shown his potential to be the next face of the Indian batting. However, Ishan Kishan has done remarkably well himself, scoring 694 runs in 17 matches averaging 46.26 at a strike rate of 107.43 in ODIs. Given that Kishan is a left hander and can keep, he could be set to play the first game with Rahul still recovering from an injury. When Rahul returns, will India look for a Left-Right opening pair or will they play the best batsman of the two next to Rohit Sharma?

Bowling Lineup

The Asia Cup squad sees the return of talisman Jasprit Bumrah, who, since his debut, has become an irreplaceable figure in the Indian setup. His absence was severely felt in the WTC final where Australia made hay batting first. Bumrah was able to rush the Ireland batsmen in their T20 games and was able to hit 140 kmph on a regular interval, although it was not to the same consistent as it was before his injury. However, given that he has not played an ODI game in 14 months, we can expect Bumrah to hit his usual pace sooner rather than later. 

However, despite his return, the management still has quite a few questions to answer with regards to the bowling. India has struggled with team balance since most of the batsmen do not bowl, while most of the bowlers cannot bat. Due to this, India may be tempted to play Shardul Thakur as the third seamer, to lengthen the batting. Thakur is no slouch with the ball as well, having shown a knack for picking up wickets at crucial intervals throughout his career. 

On the other hand, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj have proven to be the more pedigreed bowlers, having established themselves as world-class bowlers. Siraj is currently the no. 4 ranked bowler in the world and Shami has 162 wickets in just 89 innings in the format. However, neither of them can bat like Thakur does. The team would also be hoping that Hardik Pandya can contribute regularly with the bowl and can be a potent seam bowling option who can alleviate the pressure on the bowling lineup. 

In the spin department, Kuldeep Yadav looks set to accompany Ravindra Jadeja in the 11, unless the management decides to play two left-arm spinners or four fast bowlers, both of which seem highly unlikely. The use of wrist spinners was a key talking point ahead of the previous World Cup as well, and Kuldeep can use this opportunity to lay down his place in this side during the Asia Cup.

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