Who should be India’s second wicket-keeper at the World Cup?
Right from when the preparation to finalise India’s second wicketkeeper for the ICC Cricket World Cup began, there has never been a decisive moment where it looked like the selectors have zeroed up on a single person to do the job. It is quite a strange moment as an Indian selector, mainly because after having had the services of MS Dhoni since so many years; it hardly ever looked like team India would require a backup wicketkeeper in a major ICC tournament.
Interestingly, India never had to take a deputy keeper in either of the last two 50 overs World Cups. Dhoni has managed to stay fit and his skills behind the stumps have gotten better with age. However, this time around, the scenario has changed.
Nearly approaching 38 years of age, the team management looks adamant on having someone to back Dhoni up if the veteran is unfit for a game or two during the tournament. It should be noted that Dhoni has suffered minor injuries that he never did earlier in his career. He sat out of two games against New Zealand due to an issue with his hamstring and was rested to try out Pant in the final two ODI games against Australia too.
However, there should arguably be no questions over Dhoni’s place in the playing XI and hence it becomes important to have a second-choice wicketkeeper who can add up to become a quality member of the starting XI whenever required. Given the problems that India has faced recently due to a troublesome middle-order, it is all the way more important to ensure that the second keeper remains someone who can bat in any middle order position.
Right from the England tour around a year ago, Dinesh Karthik and Rishabh Pant have been on trial for that coveted World Cup spot. Whilst Karthik played the series against England and Australia away from home; Pant represented the team against West Indies and Australia at home. Now, it has become pretty clear that the selectors have given them a couple of series to prove their mettle and make it to the final 15 for the World Cup.
Though it could be argued that Pant hasn’t been given the absolute required number of matches to properly audition for a spot in the ODI team, he has been a constant in the T20I team and the selectors do have a fair bit of idea about his white ball cricket credentials. The 21-year-old has been a standout performer in the IPL and he does have the required skill-set to succeed in international cricket too. However, quite surprisingly, the Delhi Capitals’ player has propelled himself to becoming a regular in team India due to his performances in Test cricket.
Pant scored centuries in the fifth Test match at Oval and the fourth Test match at Sydney during the tours of England and Australia respectively. His stroke play is aggressive, something that allowed selectors to take a chance on him by dropping the more experienced and probably level-headed Karthik.
Make no mistake, Pant has earned all his opportunities so far and it wouldn’t be unfair to say that he should have been given more chances to cement his spot for the World Cup. However, what we are seeing right now in the Indian team is a problem of plenty, something that they haven’t seemed to manage quite well. Hence, if you look at it from an outsider’s perspective, the middle-order’s merry-go-round is yet to be sorted completely.
Pant offers quite a lot with the bat, but one of the major drawbacks has been the fact that he hasn’t replicated his form from the longest format of the game to the limited overs. In the last ODI against Australia, the stage was set for the young lad to end the debate for once and for all. In front of his home crowd, Pant was promoted to number four with around 200 odd runs yet to be chased.
Against England Lions in a recent game for India A, Pant came into bat at a similarly tricky situation and scored unbeaten 75 runs to see off a victory for his side. This time around though, he got outfoxed with Nathan Lyon’s off-spin and had to walk back to the dressing room, eventually bringing an end to a frustrating limited overs season for him. It is difficult to decipher why Pant has struggled to get going in what seemingly looks like his most favoured format.
Maybe, a reason could be the fact that he has never been given a guaranteed stretch of games for the same. Even in this series, there were opportunities to try him out since the beginning. However, he was drafted into the playing XI only when MSD sat out of the last two matches. There are many factors that propelled the selectors to try him out in the recently concluded series against Australia.
Through his exploits in the longer format of the game, Pant has demonstrated his ability to bat for a prolonged period of time by maintaining a balance between aggressive stroke play and sensible strike rotation. These are two factors that are of utmost necessity for a proper number four batsman in ODIs. Given how India has struggled to find an accurate player in that position, maybe the management was looking at him to fill that void.
However, once he failed to make the most of that opportunity, it became certain that the decision between him and Karthik would yet not have been taken. Dinesh Karthik’s case is quite interesting too. The KKR captain has notched up a level or two since the past couple of seasons and found a way back into the Indian team by almost making the best use of any chance that he has been provided.
He is a proven finisher now, displaying his calmness and composure in difficult situations right from that absolutely thrilling Nidahas Trophy final. Karthik has shown that the team can depend on him to instantly accelerate the flow of runs whenever asked for. Moreover, having taken over the captaincy for KKR, there has been a more matured aspect to his game that has become apparent even to the masses.
However, a major factor that works against him has been his inability to play a long innings when presented with an opportunity in Indian colours. His style of play in the past one year seems to have become more suited to playing a quick knock out of nowhere and bailing the team out from improbable losing situations. Can he change his approach when there’s a sudden fall of wickets?
Karthik has been around the team long enough for the selectors to have a fair idea of what he brings to the table. He has the experience and most importantly, the composure to deal with some delicate situations of the match.
When it comes down to their skills on the field, Karthik might emerge as the clear winner here unlike when you compare their batting. Pant has been sloppy behind the stumps for a bit too long for the team to be comfortable with it. It is understandable that he is young and will definitely improve on this aspect, but would the management trust him for such a daunting task in challenging conditions in England? Karthik has improved on his wicket-keeping skills and is undoubtedly an excellent fielder in the deep too. He can fairly contribute in DRS decisions, maybe because of loads of experience that he has gained over the years.
There is still no conclusion on this issue. Whether the selectors decide to go for more spunkiness in Rishabh Pant, or for better equanimity in Dinesh Karthik remains to be seen.
However, despite all, Pant does seem to enjoy the confidence of the board of selectors. He was recently awarded a Grade A contract and his good performances in the Test circuit has been well appreciated. His selection in this series against Australia does kind of indicate that the odds are tilted to his favour. Subcontinental teams since long have had an affinity for six-hitters and Pant is one of the cleanest strikers of the ball one could come across. He even offers a change from an often radical batting approach of the Indian team, which could be extremely useful considering that the World Cup is expected to be a high-scoring tournament as such.
Many times though, we opt for a reserved and collected approach whenever we are stuck in a tricky situation in life.
The current Indian middle order is one such example. There’s far too much doubt over that number four spot to take another big risk with it. Maybe, for the next few months at least, Dinesh Karthik could serve and add more value to this purpose of the team.