A 127-strong contingent – India’s largest ever at the Olympics – has got 130 crore nationals glued to the proceedings in Tokyo. Meanwhile, one of only two five-Test series in the second World Test Championship (WTC) cycle awaits the Indian cricket team in England.
At such a time, it would have been wrong to expect India’s limited-overs series against Sri Lanka to garner much attention. Especially when many of the fringe players made up the 25-member side, which Sri Lankan great Arjuna Ranatunga classified as “second string”.
However, heads turned and channels were switched when India lost nine players to COVID-19 and the second T20I by 4 wickets. Eventually, Shikhar Dhawan’s boys suffered a first bilateral T20I series loss against Sri Lanka in what was Rahul Dravid’s first stint as head coach of the senior Indian team.
India’s eight-series unbeaten streak in the shortest format was snapped, and they lost three of the last four games against what wasn’t a full-strength Lankan side either. But former chief national selector MSK Prasad – in an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda – exhorted people to not pay much heed to the result of the series.
“You have to accept this fact that we didn’t play with a full-strength side, and also, some of those players got affected with Covid. It was just an exposure, it was like a testing round for our boys at that level, that’s all. I don’t really see any prominence in this series.
“You don’t really need to worry about the outcome of this series. This is not an Indian team, this is an India-A or India-B team. 80 percent of the boys are playing there [in England], so I don’t really foresee anything out of this series,” he said.
After narrowly losing the third ODI, India roared back into form by thrashing the hosts in the opening T20I by 38 runs. Then COVID-19 struck Krunal Pandya, forcing eight other players into isolation. Spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Krishnappa Gowtham were later confirmed to have contracted the deadly virus.
Injuries, ensuing debutants and a macabre mood in the camp were always going to hinder India's performance. But MSK Prasad opined India fulfilled their primary objective of this tour, giving gametime to players like Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan.
“Only thing they were actually trying out, where do Ishan Kishan, Sanju Samson, Suryakumar Yadav or a Deepak Chahar stand in terms of form. Even before the team went there also, I thought this is only to see how they are reacting at this level,” Prasad, who was in office from 2016 to 2020, exclaimed.
While 23-year-old Kishan smashed a 42-ball 59 on his ODI debut, SKY dazzled in the 50-over leg – bagging the ‘Player of the Series’ award for amassing 124 impactful runs at an astounding average of 62. However, both had to skip the last two T20Is owing to being close contacts of senior Pandya.
Spinners pose problem of plenty ahead of T20 World Cup
If Suryakumar Yadav was the standout performer with the bat, Yuzvendra Chahal returning to form must have been heartening for Indian fans. The 31-year-old leggie hadn’t represented India in 50-over cricket this year until landing in Colombo, but he finished the ODI series as the highest wicket-taker with five scalps at an average of 20.40 from two games.
MSK Prasad expressed delight at Chahal's performances. But he cautioned that the performance might not be enough to seal a birth for Chahal as the Chetan Sharma-led selection committee would want to give preference to bowlers who can contribute a wee bit with the willow as well.
“We were actually looking at Chahal [to perform], and he really responded well. But the World Cup is being played in the UAE, in Asian conditions, so they [selectors] will definitely look at spinners who can bat. Fortunately, Varun Chakravarthy and Chahal may not give you so many runs with the bat, but Jadeja, Krunal or a Washington Sundar, they are equally good batsmen also,” Prasad told Sportskeeda.
To break it down, India have three leg-spinners – Yuzvendra Chahal, Rahul Chahar, Varun Chakravarthy, two off-spinners – Ravichandran Ashwin, Washington Sundar, three left-arm orthodox – Ravindra Jadeja, Krunal Pandya, Axar Patel, and a left-arm leggie in Kuldeep Yadav at their disposal.
But MSK Prasad believes not even five of the nine will be on the flight to the UAE. He named Jadeja, Krunal and Sundar as automatic picks for their all-round abilities, while leaving a choice for the fourth spot between Chahal and ‘mystery spinner’ Chakravarthy.
“I don’t think they will take five spinners. Washington Sundar is a T20 specialist bowler, no two ways about it, and Jadeja will anyway be in the squad. Then Krunal Pandya – he can bat, he can bowl, he can field. Apart from these three, whether you’ll go with a Chahal or an ex-factor in Varun Chakravarthy depends on how they perform in the IPL because that will also take place in the UAE,” the former India stumper said.
There have also been discussions regarding Ravichandran Ashwin being drafted into India’s white-ball setup. India's premier off-spinner is having a dream run in international cricket – with both bat and ball – and picked up 13 wickets during last season’s IPL in the Emirates.
MSK Prasad didn't rule out the possibility of Ashwin returning to India's T20I fold after four years, especially with Washington Sundar aggravating his chronic finger injury during India's first-class practice match last month in Durham.
“Last time we couldn’t pick Ashwin because it was happening in England, the 2019 World Cup. Now this is happening in the UAE, so depending on his performance in the IPL, he might stake a claim.
"Washington Sundar can bowl in the powerplay and can bat, he will be a contender. But if he fails to recover in time, then Ashwin definitely stands a chance,” Prasad, who played six Tests and 17 ODIs, remarked.
Kuldeep Yadav featured in four of the six matches at the R. Premadasa Stadium, picking up two wickets each in the ODI and T20I series. But Prasad opined he is out of the race for a spot in the showpiece event.
“Regarding Kuldeep, I have my own doubts now. Because they have not considered him of late, this being a second-string team they have considered, so I have my own doubts on that. He might be one of those contenders, but not a sure shot,” he stated.
The fifth edition of the T20 World Cup will be played across Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Muscat from October 18 to November 15. Notably, the UAE will also play host to the remaining 31 matches of IPL 2021, between September 19 and October 15.
MSK Prasad backs Prithvi Shaw to make India’s T20 WC squad
The ICC T20 World Cup 2021 broadcast channel list is out now, click here to know the TV channels.
India tried four different opening combinations in the five-match T20I series against England at home in March this year. Out of those, the last match produced the highest opening stand as Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli forged 94 runs off just 54 deliveries.
While the Indian captain mentioned there was “no guarantee” the same duo would open at the World Cup, speculation has been rife ever since Kohli announced he would open for the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in IPL 2021.
But MSK Prasad feels Virat Kohli should bat at No. 3 while deploying the left-right combination of Rohit and Shikhar Dhawan to face the new ball. He further harped on the need to include the explosive Prithvi Shaw as India's third opener.
“I still feel that Shikhar Dhawan should be there. It should be Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Prithvi Shaw as the three openers. And the middle-order will be Virat, SKY, KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant.
“KL is going to play in the middle-order only, because there’s Rohit and Shikhar, and even Prithvi Shaw also is in outstanding form. And again, it’s in Asian conditions, so I have a feeling he might be there,” Prasad said.
While Suryakumar Yadav has all but nailed down his spot for the 2021 T20 World Cup, MSK Prasad iterated time has run out for the likes of Manish Pandey and Sanju Samson. Neither batsman could leave an impact on the Sri Lanka tour.
“It looks like that, see our middle order is full now. There’s Suryakumar Yadav, Virat Kohli, KL Rahul, and if at all you are looking at another batsman, it’ll be between Ishan Kishan and Sanju Samson. But with both KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant keeping wickets, I doubt whether they’ll go for a third one,” he explained.
Another key player who hasn’t quite converted his ability into performance of late is Hardik Pandya. The star all-rounder bowled just 14 overs across the three ODIs and scalped 2 wickets, while contributing just 19 runs with the bat. And in the lone T20I he played before going into isolation, the 27-year-old scored a scratchy 12-ball 10 and accounted for Ashen Bandara.
But Prasad mentioned he will get a green light for the global event simply because of his three-dimensional contributions. He added that Pandya's performances in Colombo won’t affect his chances one bit.
“You don’t really look at this Sri Lanka tour, IPL is a much bigger event where he has delivered. Now he is bowling also, so he is doing his job. And right now for that particular role, there is no better person than him. You can’t just see those three games of Sri Lanka and decision. More importantly, we have another few matches of IPL before going to the World Cup, so he will come in good form,” MSK Prasad elaborated.
However, amidst all the performances, statistics, speculations and permutations, two players – who had once cemented their spots in India’s playing XI – can now only hope against hope while rehabilitating at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru.
Middle-order batter Shreyas Iyer (shoulder) would be tearing his hair out over the timing of his injury, but MSK Prasad feels left-arm seamer T Natarajan (knee) would have anyway found it difficult to break into the squad.
“Regarding Nattu, you already have enough pace bowlers, so I doubt whether he would have found a place. Bumrah, Bhuvi, Shami and Mohammed Siraj are doing so well, Hardik Pandya is the backup bowler, so where is the space? But I feel pity for Shreyas because he was actually picking up really well, he had slowly established his place in the 11 also. Injury happened at a very wrong time,” he concluded.
It must be noted that all these calculations will go up in smoke if the International Cricket Council (ICC) mandates all nations to travel with enlarged squads bearing the COVID scenario in mind.
ALSO READArticle Continues below