As Team India takes shape for the 2019 ICC ODI World Cup, it’s indeed heartening to see Virat Kohli’s men play like a well-ironed unit with options for every position.
Be it Tests or ODIs, India’s performance has been phenomenal since the beginning of the year. More than the victories, it’s the convincing manner in which they were achieved, which has raised expectation levels.
This team, with the right blend of youth and experience, looks poised to climb greater heights – and it looks hungry for success. The players know exactly what is expected from them. A positive sign indeed, particularly going into the World Cup.
And if there is one factor contributing the most to the team being in the midst of a terrific run -- India sit pretty atop the table both in ICC ODI and Test rankings presently — it’s the squad’s tremendous bench strength.
With nearly all players performing exceptionally, there is a healthy competition within the squad, which elevates the team further.
Be it batting or bowling, the current Indian team seems to possess a wide range of well-deserving candidates to fill each position as per the requirement. Few teams in contemporary cricket enjoy so much depth in all departments of the game, especially in the shorter format.
So just what is clicking for Team India? The Men in Blue are on a roll this year, having won all the four ODI series so far with victories over England, the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Australia, besides a run to the final of the ICC Champions Trophy.
If one looks into the steady rise of the team since Kohli took over the captaincy reigns from MS Dhoni in January this year, there’s a method behind the Men in Blue’s climb to the Number 1 spot in the ICC ODI rankings.
India achieved the feat by brushing aside Australia 4-1 in the five-match home series last Sunday, pipping South Africa to reclaim the coveted top slot. But their rise to the summit was not unexpected. And these are reasons why.
The Indian batting order has been consistent throughout, with someone taking up the mantle of lifting the team whenever the need arises. So even if an in-form Shikhar Dhawan opts out of a series, you have Ajinkya Rahane to fill the opener’s slot and provide perfect support to Rohit Sharma, who has been in incredible touch since making a comeback from injury during the Champions Trophy earlier this year.
Even then there’s competition with Lokesh Rahul, who has performed commendably in his short stint at the top of the order, waiting in the wings.
And no batting summary would be complete without mentioning Kohli, whose remarkable calendar year has seen him leading from the front with 1,197 runs from 23 matches at an average of 74.81.
Dhoni too has been great with the willow, ever since being relived from the charge of captaincy, with a tally of 648 runs from 23 games, averaging 72.
PANDYA, A REVELATION
Hardik Pandya – arguably the biggest gain of the season -- has been a revelation for Team India. His exploits in the just-concluded series against Australia show that the 23-year-old is getting used to the challenges hurled at him early into his career.
As a pace unit, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah have been simply terrific in the past couple of series. While Kumar can get the ball to swing, Bumrah is blessed with the ability to bowl yorkers. Chinaman Kuldeep Yadav and leggie Yuzvendra Chahal too are doing a great job, baffling the batsmen who don’t yet seem to consistently read them, while Axar Patel has shown impressive form since returning to the side in the series against Sri Lanka.
What is heartening to see is that more than the established players, it’s the lesser-experienced youngsters who are turning things around for Team India.
The present team seems to have much more clarity about its strengths, and how to play to them. The young brigade, both fearless and confident, has certainly widened the range of options at the team management’s disposal. Be it the grand arrival of Pandya, the unlikely coup by Yadav and Chahal -- one can’t recall multiple wrist spinners taking over the Indian spin attack that easily -- or the street smart approach of Patel, this team now has a battery of no nonsense cricketers, who’re ready to take the bull by the horns.
A lot of credit for India’s dominant run must go to the Indian Premier League (IPL), for proving to be a successful supplier of talent capable of handling the pressure of top rank cricket without getting intimidated.
With no disrespect to the importance of domestic cricket, it’s a fact that many of the current crops of players, especially the younger brigade, have been catapulted into the international scene owning to some impactful performances in the IPL.
Whether it is Pandya, Chahal, Patel, or the now dependable Jasprit Bumrah and Kedar Jadhav, the Indian team couldn’t have boasted such depth had their outstanding efforts in the IPL over a period of time not yielded desired results.
Commenting on India’s recent success and the rise of the young brigade, Dileep Premachandran, senior sportswriter and former editor-in-chief at Wisden India, says: “I think every team needs a renewal from time to time. It’s not just that players get old, they can also get jaded. Players also need some breather, especially when they play so many matches. This Indian limited overs team needed some new faces. The new faces have come in and done a great job — whether it’s young bowlers like Kuldeep Yadav or Yuzvendra Chahal, all-rounder Hardik Pandya or Kedar Yadav, though he is not a youngster anymore. All of them have seized their chances and have played a big part in India’s success so far.”
On whether the present mix looks good going into the 2019 World Cup, Premachandran said: “See, every World Cup requires a 15-man squad, and ideally you would want to be in a position to have 25 very good players in your hand well before the tournament commences. I think India is reaching that stage where they will have 20-25 top players to choose from. And you need those options, as somewhere down the line somebody is going to lose form or get injured. These things happen in any sport. You need to make sure that you have the replacements who can come in. That India is going into a major series (T20s against Australia) again without Ashwin and Jadeja is unthinkable. In fact, they have already beaten the world champions in ODIs without the senior duo. It’s a very good sign, especially with the 2019 World Cup in mind.”
The impact the so called ‘fringe’ players have made on the team in recent times can be gauged by the fact that two of India’s top tweakers, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, are finding it impossible to return to the squad. They may still be the first choice in Test cricket, but when it comes to ODIs and T20s, the team management presently seems to be more than content with the performance of Yadav, Chahal and Patel.
With the senior duo again overlooked for the three-match T20 series against Australia starting Saturday, it’s clear that the two will have their task cut out in the run up to the 2019 World Cup.
When Jadeja and Ashwin were left out of the ODI squad for the series against Sri Lanka, the term ‘rested’ was used. That no longer holds true with Ashwin turning out regularly for Worcestershire in the English county season.
Jadeja too was drafted into the squad for the first three ODIs against Australia as replacement for an injured Axar Patel, but was promptly removed without a look-in after the latter’s return.
While many may argue in favour of experience over exuberance, a look at how Ashwin and Jadeja fared in ODIs in the last two years tells why they are finding it hard to break into the side. Ashwin played 12 matches during this period, taking 11 wickets at an average of 52, while Jadeja picked up 11 wickets from 15 games at 67.09.
In comparison, Kuldeep Yadav, who made his debut against the West Indies in June 2017, so far has a haul of 18 wickets from 11 matches at 24.38. Chahal -- who first played against Zimbabwe in June last year but made a comeback in the recent series against Sri Lanka -- too has played similar number of matches with 17 wickets to his name at 25.70.
Add to that, the delicate Haryana leggie has claimed 14 wickets from 7 T20s with best figures of 6/25. It’s not for nothing that the selectors are showing faith in the young guns. They may be still raw, but they are hungry. They also bring to the table healthy competition, which should help the team find the right mix ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
Talking to Financial Chronicle, former India international Atul Wassan says: “Yes, the new set of cricketers like Pandya, Chahal and Yadav are exciting. Once you perform, everybody takes notice. They were more like fringe players, but now they have pushed back and made the most of the chances that came their way. See, be it the youngsters, Jadeja or Ashwin, everybody would like to play every game. But that’s not happening, because this Indian team has got options. Even in T20, you have new players coming in. I hope that in near future, the Indian team will have an entirely different set of players for T20, because it’s the era of specialists.”
What has also been doing wonders for Indian cricket in recent years is the constant supply of a new breed of cricketers by the IPL.
These players are fearless, aggressive and want to prove a point whenever opportunity comes knocking. Be it Chahal, Pandya, Patel, Bumrah, or those waiting on the sidelines like Sanju Samson, Rishabh Pant, Rahul Tripathi, Basil Thampi or Washington Sundar -- this new generation of cricketers have mostly come from smaller cricketing centres, with big dreams in their eyes and little time to waste. Bursting onto the scene in a mega event like IPL, which attracts unmatched media attention with prime time worldwide television/online coverage, is never easy, especially, if the player is raw, with little domestic experience, as is the case with most of the present lot of cricketers. Moreover, no Indian domestic team has the kind of backroom riches that the IPL teams have. So it’s a completely new world for them.
Yet there is no time to acclimatise, given the tremendous pace in which the format is played, with hardly any breather between games.
So it takes nerves for a player to go out and perform under such pressure. And to do that consistently takes some effort; it can’t be fluke all the time. The players, early into their careers, also benefit from the kind of exposure they get to top class cricketing infrastructure. These young guns are getting a platform to display their true talents from an early age. And there’s nothing wrong in that.
STORY OF CHAHAL
Take the case of Chahal. The leg-spinner from Jind, Haryana, made his first class debut quite sometime back, in 2009. After few good outings at the India A circuit, Chahal was roped in by Mumbai Indians in 2011.
Though he didn’t get a game that year in the IPL, Chahal did pretty well in Mumbai Indians’ successful Champions League T20 campaign, playing all the matches.
Still he failed to feature in more than one game in the next two IPL seasons for Mumbai Indians. Things started to turn around after Chahal signed for Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2014, enjoying a good debut season, getting 12 wickets from 14 games.
The next two years Chahal cut loose, becoming Royal Challengers Bangalore’s highest wicket taker on both occasions with 23 and 21 wickets in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
The back-to-back show was enough to earn Chahal a maiden India call, for the away ODI series against Zimbabwe in June last year. After a quiet beginning, Chahal announced his arrival in the series deciding the third T20 against England at Kanpur in January this year.
Chasing 202, England were bamboozled by Chahal’s magical 6/25 to succumb to a 75-run defeat, losing the last 8 wickets for just 8 runs.
The former junior (U-12) national chess champion hasn’t looked back since, and is presently busy cementing his place in the ODI side with some impressive displays after returning to the squad for the series against Sri Lanka. In between, Chahal had a quiet IPL in 2017, going by his standards, picking up 14 wickets from 13 outings for Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Points out Wassan: “Yes, it’s very obvious to say that Indian Premier League has been a great talent pool for Indian cricket. IPL has actually raised the bar. Earlier, if you were not in the Indian team, you never got the opportunity to play with top-notch players from around the world. Now they share the same dressing room. For example, Yujvendra Chahal honed his skills by bowling to the likes of Chris Gayle in the nets for Royal Challengers Bangalore. He wouldn’t have got this chance otherwise. Once you suddenly make the jump to the Indian team, you may not be ready. But now the players who are coming through are already prepared for the challenges because they have played in the IPL for so many years.”
THE CASE OF PANDYA
In a sense, Pandya represents the IPL breed more aptly than anyone else in his generation. Not the one to be intimidated while rubbing shoulder with the big guns, Pandya looks confident, aggressive and, most importantly, hungry. Right since making his Ranji Trophy debut for Baroda in 2013, Pandya, in a limited circle, was known for his hard-hitting skills. His useful contributions in Baroda winning the 2014 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, the domestic T20 tournament, won him a contract with Mumbai Indians the following season.
The bonding clicked immediately, with Mumbai Indians going on to clinch the title, and Pandya living up to the billing, pocketing two Man of the Match awards with 112 runs from nine matches at a strike rate of 180.64.
His ability to strike the ball big and clean had impressed Mumbai Indian mentor Ricky Ponting, who praised him for his attitude.
It’s no wonder that the Baroda all-rounder has now blossomed into a vital cog in Kohli’s wheel, particularly since the Champions Trophy.
Nothing better than having a seam-bowling all-rounder with an ODI batting average of 40 and a wicket tally of 29 at an economy rate of 5.57. It’s now important for Pandya to build on his strengths.
“I think the IPL has played a big role in developing Indian talent. It’s not just what the players learn on the field. Sharing dressing rooms and training along side legends of the game can only benefit young talents. For them, IPL is an incredible finishing school because it gets nearly 80 per cent of the world’s top players coming to play here every season. Whether they are your teammates or opponents, you can just go and talk to them on how to get better as a player. That clearly helps, not just in honing your skills, but also in terms of developing your mental strength for the big games. IPL is high-pressure cricket with a lot on stake, both in terms of money and prestige because people have invested millions in building the teams. Also, a huge crowd comes to watch each game. So if you can perform in those conditions, you are expected to do well in most conditions,” Premachandran said.
Commenting on the success of the league, IPL veteran and India international Suresh Raina had said in an interview: “People say IPL is just T20 experience, but it helps a lot. If a six is needed off the last ball, I know I can do it. It is one reason why we won the World Cup. This tournament has made players.Yusuf Pathan did well in this event, and went on to play for India. So did Jadeja. Those who want to see positives, will see them.”
Not everyone, however, views IPL as the main supplier of Indian talent. One player who has seen IPL more closely than many of his contemporaries is Rajat Bhatia, the veteran Delhi all-rounder, who has featured in every single edition of IPL since the inception of the big league in 2008.
Bhatia, feels that while IPL does its bit for the game, it’s still domestic cricket that should be considered the main yardstick to judge a player’s potentials.
“It’s true that IPL does aid a player immensely. It helps a lot when you stay together on the road as a team for two months. You learn a lot about the game, how to handle pressure, of the different situations etc. However, it’s not only IPL that makes you a player. While one must admit that quite a few stars have emerged out of the IPL over the years, there are many more who have shown sparks of brilliance in one season, only to sink into the oblivion. Take the example of Paul Valthaty, the Goa batsman who shot into the limelight with a blistering century for Kings XI Punjab in IPL 2011. Or for that matter Manvinder Bisla, who starred in Kolkata Knight Riders’ title triumph in 2012. Do you hear these players’ names anymore? You won’t even see them in the domestic circuit,” says Bhatia, who has played for four IPL franchises so far — Delhi Daredevils, KKR, Rajasthan Royals and Rising Pune Supergiants.
Adds Bhatia: “It’s not correct to judge a cricketer from a few good outings. While IPL tests a player’s nerve, domestic cricket tests his calibre. The grinding, long domestic schedules, the unfavourable, tough conditions and intense competition -- all these prepare a player for the long run. And to serve the country, you need players who will sustain, rather than one-match wonders. That’s why I feel success in domestic cricket still holds key,” Bhatia added.
Wassan, the former Delhi medium pacer, also feels that there’s a method behind India doing so well in recent times. “Credit should also go to the wealth of the excellent pattern system Indian cricket now has, at the NCAs, India A level, and especially with Rahul Dravid taking over juniors’ cricket. India is doing so well in all the three formats because there’s a constant conveyor belt of cricketers coming through the domestic circuit. It shows that no matter what politics is going on at the top level, with the Supreme Court, the BCCI or the COA — cricket on the ground is alive and kicking.”
Adds Wassan: “Also, cricket being such a lucrative profession, more youngsters are taking to the game, bringing in more talent into the system. Importantly, the talent is catching the eye because there are zonal cricket academies and scouts doing their bit to ensure no talent slips through. And then gradually once the talent comes into the system, it is groomed and then promoted. Also, the competition is such that everyone thrives to give his best shot. Due to all these factors, the Indian team is doing so well.”
While it is extremely important to have a thriving domestic circuit for the growth of cricket in the country, having the IPL running along side doesn’t seem to be doing Indian cricket any harm.
While a lot may be said about the glamorous, commercial facet of the cash-rich league, the cricket played on the ground has always been of the highest quality. It takes some effort by a player to get noticed, and that doesn’t have happen by chance.
And it’s not just Indian players who are making it big. The success of the tournament in churning out future stars has global reach. Shaun Marsh and James Faulkner are only two names who featured in the IPL before making it to the national one-day side.
Acknowledging the value of IPL, former England captain Michael Vaughan had said before the Champions Trophy in June that he believes IPL exposure will give England an edge in their bid to win a first major 50-over tournament. “Playing in the IPL is a tremendous experience. It should've been done years ago. I think it just furthers their white-ball education. I can't see anything but positives. England players should be involved in these types of leagues and if it means they miss a couple of Ireland games, I’m all for it,” Vaughn had said.
Sadly, England crashed out of the Champions Trophy in the semi-final against eventual champions Pakistan. For Team India though, the IPL route seems to doing alright. With the youngsters grabbing whatever chances are coming their way with both hands, and the senior pros providing the much needed balance, Indian cricket looks right on track.
However, the true test for this team will come when it attempts to conquer South Africa in South Africa in January 2018 and England in England next summer. How well do you travel tests a team’s tryst with greatness.