ICC World Cup 2019: Have India ever fielded a stronger squad?
Yesterday, the BCCI announced the final 15 for the World Cup 2019. The squad list is a cause for joy, and equal amount of heartbreak.
Most of the slots were already fixed based on the performances of the past few months, and the few open slots had a strong bunch of contenders. With IPL 2019 starting just before the team announcement, the general consensus was that a good IPL performance would guarantee you a spot on the flight to England.
Virat Kohli specifically clarified before the IPL that performances in the tournament would not be taken into account for selection. But it is simple human nature to consider recent form and performances. Did that impact the selections? Let's take a look.
The Openers and Number 3
These three slots were the easiest to fill with the two openers - Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan - picking themselves, and arguably the best batsman in the world - Virat Kohli - filling the No. 3 slot.
These three have been holding these same positions unchallenged from prior to the previous World Cup held in Australia in 2015, and have shown no signs of slowing down. They are the key to India's success; where the team ends up will be largely determined by the form of these three.
This was the most contentious spot of them all, with no clear cut contender. Filling the number 4 slot was the key decision making needed of the selectors.
Over the past year Ambati Rayadu had emerged as the front runner for this spot. Kohli declared six months ago that Rayadu was the man for number 4 in the lineup. However, Rohit Sharma quite recently mentioned that his personal choice for No. 4 was MS Dhoni.
To add to this confusion, the past 6 months saw the meteoric rise of Vijay Shankar.
Shankar is the same guy who couldn't put bat to ball in the Nidahas Trophy final against Bangladesh in March 2018, and looked so woefully inept that there were questions on how he even made it to this level. But 11 months down the line, in February this year, with India 18/4 against NZ in Wellington, he scored his first meaningful rearguard innings with a solid 45 to take India to victory (ironically the top scorer and Man of the match there was Rayadu with 90).
Shankar hasn't looked back since, with big hits and confident innings against Australia projecting him as a good backup to Hardik Pandya.
Or so everyone thought.
The selectors instead pulled a rabbit out of the hat, by selecting Shankar for number 4 in the World Cup. It is a contentious decision, and something that will be talked about for ages, especially if Shankar fails with the bat in England.
Spare a thought for Rayadu. He has spent most of last year ironing out the chinks in his game to be the most efficient number 4 possible. And then at the last minute, he is out, for no fault of this.
Everything is fair in love and war. This is war.
The middle order
Numbers 5, 6 and 7 were also fairly settled for a long time. At number 5 was Kedar Jadhav, who had shown a knack to finish off games for India as well as CSK in the IPL. The only concern with him has been his fitness, which has held up so far.
Jadhav's addition also gives a spin bowling option to the team and flexibility to Kohli to bring him in when facing a long partnership. His round-arm bowling is unconventional and brings in a different challenge to even well-set batsmen.
At No. 6 is MS Dhoni. Dhoni was anointed as the main wicket keeper in the ODI team by Kohli a couple of years ago, and every series since then has only fortified that decision.
Dhoni can also be used as a floater up the order, and he also plays the role of proxy-captain when on the field, with Kohli fielding on the boundary. His selection was a no-brainer.
Number 7 will be filled by Hardik Pandya. Notwithstanding Shankar's rise, Pandya is still the best all-rounder India has, with the ability to win a match with his batting or bowling alone.
This leaves us with the last four positions, and three of the four bowlers here pick themselves. The spin twins - Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal - have been bamboozling SA, NZ and Australia in their backyards and are a shoo-in for the World Cup.
At number 11 is Jasprit Bumrah, arguably the best all-round bowler in the world right now. The only spot up for grabs here is the one pace bowling slot, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami both laying equal claim to it.
Based on current form, Shami looks like the one who will start here, but Bhuvi is right on his heels and waiting for a chance. The latter's superior batting also gives him an advantage, if Shami fails to deliver in the initial matches.
So finally, this is how the first XI looks:
This is a well rounded team covering all bases, and has match-winners in all 11 positions. It has seven batsmen, seven bowlers and 11 good fielders. It covers the team for spinning pitches, and also for green ones aiding pace.
This is perhaps the first World Cup where India will be fielding such a strong unit.
The bench is where this team really shows its quality. Consider these names:
All four of them can easily slot into the first XI, without any notable dip in the team's performance. Rahul has been chosen as a back-up opener but I suspect we might even see him at No. 4 in place of Shankar.
Ravindra Jadeja is the best substitute fielder a team can hope for, and a more than able replacement for either of the two frontline spinners. Dinesh Karthik is Dhoni's backup for the wicketkeeping spot and has shown his finishing capabilities repeatedly, with the Nidahas Trophy final being his greatest moment on a cricket field.
Overall, this team has the potential to get into the semis and then go on to win the cup. It's a rarity that India field such a strong team that can play and dominate in English conditions.
For fans like me, who have grown up in the late 80s and 90s watching the Indian teams flounder all across the world, this is a pinch-me-again moment.
Looking at the opposition, England and Australia seem like the two clear favourites. But hey, it isn't over until Pandya has batted and Bumrah has bowled!