Who should make India's 15-man World Cup squad?
Move on. No two words sum up the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) mindset better when it came to choosing the 30-man preliminary squad for the looming ODI World Cup. The first cut includes just four survivors from the 2011 World Cup winning team – MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and Ravichandran Ashwin. Reactions have been sharply divided. While fans of ignored demi-gods like Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan have staged vehement protests across available social media forums, the higher echelons of cricket connoisseurs have leaned in favour of preferring youth over underprepared experience.
While some have hailed the BCCI’s move as brave, a closer look would indicate that the omission of these big names was somewhat of a no-brainer. Zaheer has not played List A cricket for the past two years, with limited match practice across other formats as well. Harbhajan, whose mediocrity in the 2011 WC was adequately masked by Yuvraj, is hardly a strike bowler even in domestic matches this season. Sehwag and Gambhir average in the 20s in List A cricket since the 2012-13 season, with slightly better returns in the IPL, which should not be an influencing factor in this selection. Over the same period, Yuvraj has racked up acceptable numbers, but a poor domestic season this year probably shut the doors on him.
Now that we have dwelt on the ‘elephant in the room’ awhile, let us turn our attention to the 30-man list, as segmented by ESPNCricinfo.
The highlighted names are those I believe to be absolute certainties in the 15-man squad which needs to be declared within the January 7 deadline set by the ICC.
Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav, Manoj Tiwary, Manish Pandey, M Vijay
Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron, Dhawal Kulkarni, Stuart Binny, Mohit Sharma, Ashok Dinda
R Ashwin, Parvez Rasool, Karn Sharma, Amit Mishra, Ravindra Jadeja, Akshar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav
MS Dhoni, Robin Uthappa, Sanju Samson, Wriddhiman Saha.
As expected, India’s batting line-up is well settled, and barring major injuries, the top six batsmen and Dhoni select themselves.
Moving on to the quick bowlers, Shami and Umesh have been India’s best bowlers this year (both averaging about 22 in 2014) and should surely be in the 15. I can sense a few eyebrows being raised at Bhuvneshwar’s name not being highlighted; will get to that in due course.
I have not highlighted any spinners, as both of India’s frontline tweakers, Ashwin and Jadeja, have had a mediocre year. Youngsters like Akshar and Karn are knocking at the door, and no senior can take their place for granted, bearing in mind the message given out by the board at the onset.
India went into the 2011 WC without a reserve keeper, but they may think otherwise this time around, given that Dhoni is older and more injury-prone than four years ago.
Predicting the 15-man squad
In the exercise that follows, I have attempted to narrow down to the 15-man squad using a combination of objective and subjective analysis. With nine men already decided, for me at least, the actual task would be to select six more from the remaining 21.
Big names like Ishant, Bhuvneshwar, Aaron, Ashwin and Jadeja have not been considered for objective analysis, which focuses predominantly on the relative newcomers to ascertain their current form. The List A tournaments considered for this analysis are - Quadrangular A-Team One-Day Series 2014, Vijay Hazare Trophy (VHT), 2014/15, and Deodhar Trophy (DT), 2014/15. I have, however, taken the liberty of eliminating a few subjectively, based on their no-shows in the aforementioned tournaments.
According to unconfirmed reports, Vijay barely edged out Yuvraj, as the think-tank believes that he could be a better man to have around, in case he strikes form during the ongoing Test series in Australia. Vijay has not created an impact in any of the List A tournaments selected for analysis, and neither do his past ODI exploits generate confidence. I do not see him making the next cut unless he performs extraordinarily, or one/both of the regular ODI openers fail miserably, in the Test series.
Binny has been in and out of the Indian team, and his dibbly-dobblers, largely ineffective even in English conditions which support his ilk of medium pacers, will be largely relegated to hit-me-stuff on Australian pitches.
Rasool, Mishra and Kuldeep find themselves in the 30 on the back of consistent performances in domestic tournaments over a period of time, as well as the IPL, but should surely be the first to get culled when the next level selection is initiated.
Very much in the Vijay mold, Saha could get a look-in if he impresses during the ongoing Test series, but a relatively ho-hum List A season, and non-participation in the quadrangular, eliminate him from my analysis.
For the drill-down, I have implemented a bubble analysis, which evaluates attributes across three parameters, and is, therefore, more comprehensive than two-dimensional ones.
The players to be analyzed are bucketed into two segments:
Batsmen: Jadhav, Tiwary, Pandey, Uthappa, Samson
Bowlers: Dhawal, Mohit, Dinda, Karn, Akshar (Ishant, Bhuvneshwar, Aaron, Ashwin and Jadeja are parked for subjective analysis and not a part of bubble analysis)
Determining the batsmen
For the batting analysis, the X-axis represents a batsman’s average, Y-axis his SR, and size of the bubble represents total runs scored, across the three tournaments. For the layman, the further away from the axis a particular batsman finds himself, the better it is as it indicates a higher average and SR. The sheer volume of runs scored is indicated by the bubble size.
Looking at the bubble analysis over all three tournaments (Fig 1a), Tiwary and Pandey make a very strong case for themselves, topping the run-scoring charts, with more than respectable averages and strike rates. Jadhav has scored the fastest, but his bubble (runs scored) is quite small. Samson and Uthappa appear to be the weakest in the fray. Based on an overall analysis, the battle looks to be very much between Tiwary and Pandey.
While overall form is a definite plus, I have assigned greater importance for the Quadrangular (Fig 1b), given that recent success or failure in conditions similar to where the World Cup will be played cannot be ignored. The equation changes quite a bit when the Quadrangular series is considered in isolation. Uthappa continues to languish at the bottom, however, and is the first to be eliminated.
Tiwary and Pandey, heavy scorers in the VHT and DT, average in the 20s in the Quadrangular. Both made 90+ in India A’s second match of the tournament, against South Africa A, which indicates that they did little else in the remainder of the tournament.
Samson and Jadhav were India’s top performers in the Quadrangular. Jadhav, not a part of the playing XI in initial games, first made an impact in the match against the National Performance Squad (NPS). Along with Samson, Jadhav’s 53-ball 87 rescued India A from 5-63 after James Muirhead and Sean Abbott (yes, him) ran through the top-order, and led the successful 235-run chase. His 73-ball 78 in the final was instrumental in India A emerging victorious in the keenly contested tournament.
Jadhav has played fewer matches than Tiwary and Pandey, having missed the VHT due to injury, which explains him scoring fewer runs. The fact that he was a part of the experimental squad during the recent ODI series between India and Sri Lanka, while the other two were not, is ample hint that he remains within the think-tank’s scheme of things.
Samson has been the standout performer in the Quadrangular, outscoring even Jadhav as the graph indicates, although failures in the VHT and DT have pulled him down in the overall analysis. Particularly impressive was his prowess as a finisher, especially in chases, where he was almost Bevan-like in guiding the team over the finish line, ending with a tournament average of 81.33.
In an eight-man batting shortlist (including Dhoni), only one of Samson and Jadhav looks likely to get through. It is extremely difficult to separate the two, and the question to be asked is – who between them is more likely to get into the XI? The immediate answer is, probably neither, but Samson’s ability to double up as a reliable keeper could win him the selectors’ nod, considering that it is highly risky to have a coming-off-injury Dhoni as the sole keeper over the course of the marquee tournament.
Therefore, Samson is the first and only addition to my batsmen’s list for the 15-man shortlist.