April is turning out to be quite a thrilling month. Game of Thrones returned after two years, with the first episode on Monday setting the stage for an intense next five episodes. It remains to be seen how the Westerosi will contend with the Night King.  

The Avengers too return this month, on April 26, and we will see how they fare on a second attempt to go up against the mighty titan Thanos. Can they get back their fallen comrades, and indeed reverse the flick of Thanos’ fingers, which wiped out half the universe? 

Billions of people across India though were hooked on for another thrilling finale. It was the culmination of the Men in Blue’s almost two-year long experimentation process, and on Monday then, the 15-man squad for the 2019 ODI World Cup was announced. 

Squad: Virat Kohli (c), Rohit Sharma (vc), Shikhar Dhawan, Vijay Shankar, MS Dhoni (wk), Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, KL Rahul, Ravindra Jadeja, Dinesh Karthik. 

At first glance, this line-up is on expected lines, particularly given how team India lined up in the last 13 ODIs against Australia and New Zealand, home or away. It is also in consideration of the form of key names in the on-going IPL.

Even so, with all Indian cricket selections, it raises a few pertinent questions.

Who will bat at number four? Vijay Shankar 

Well, Shankar will at least start the tournament at number four, that much is certain. It has been a sharp rise for the all-rounder, especially given how coach Ravi Shastri is mighty impressed with his abilities. 

He is a non-fussy cricketer, playing within his limitations and going about his business in a manner he knows how. He will not flex his muscles or exhibit histrionics that some other flashy players might, a trait that makes him instantly likeable. Most importantly, there is a fighting spirit within him. 

Shankar has made a comeback from the disappointing 2018 triangular T20 series in Sri Lanka and has risen to greater heights with the bat, fully showcasing his hitting ability. Recently, he missed out on a maiden half-century twice, but more noteworthy is the fact that on both those instances, the Indian batting side was struggling and his arrival at the crease stabilised proceedings. 

In simpler terms, we haven’t seen enough of him. We have seen flashes of what he can achieve at this vital spot. Doing it at the World Cup will either make him a hero or a villain, as things balance out quickly in Indian cricket. It is almost unfair to thrust this onerous task on Shankar, perhaps even more than omitting Ambati Rayudu from the World Cup plans altogether. 

That last statement is staggering. Until India’s third-last ODI before the World Cup, he was firmly in plans for anchoring the Indian middle-order. That he played most matches at number four among all contenders in the last 20 months is a fact. But it is also a fact that runs dried up for him when it mattered. 

In 2018, Rayudu played only against lower-ranked teams in the ODI ladder, averaging 56. In 2019, he played against Australia and New Zealand, both contenders for the World Cup, averaging only 30.87. Perhaps giving up First-Class cricket was a colossal mistake because he has struggled for form ever since. 

And this is where the selectors need to be questioned. Why did they put all their eggs in one Rayudu-shaped basket as early as September 2018? Did they even try talking him out of retirement given the high stakes? How is it that they didn’t solve this number four crisis in 20 months and had to settle on Shankar at the last moment?  

Why did Rishabh Pant miss out? 

It is because India has quite a settled playing eleven. 

One of the key conclusions from this experimentation process was the team management’s realisation that they needed six bowlers to bowl out 50 overs. Two pacers, two spinners, an all-rounder and a part-timer, is the optimal combination, should one bowler be taken for runs. It allowed India to bed in key names for the World Cup – read Jadhav, Pandya and the leg spinners. 

With the top-order nearly immovable, and the batting revolving around the dual pivot of Kohli-Dhoni, there was only one spot left in the first-choice playing eleven. And it seems, despite Shastri’s inclinations, Rishabh Pant was not considered for the number four role. 

“Pant or Dinesh Karthik will only come into the picture if Dhoni gets injured,” said chief selector MSK Prasad on Monday. It underlines how India are set in their ways of depending immensely on their first-choice eleven. Further, even in Karthik’s case, he will only come into consideration as the second-choice keeper, never mind that he has been trialled as a pure batsman at number four in 2017 and then played the finisher’s role in 2018.

There is no doubt that Pant is one for the future, but he is just too raw at present. A school of thought suggests that there is certain immaturity about his shot selection, which gets enhanced because of limited-overs’ formats. ‘The team management doesn’t want to curb his instinct’, is the reasoning given, yet at the same time, maybe it doesn’t allow that streak of maturity to creep into his play. 

The other school of thought suggests Pant is prone to keeping errors. Those favouring Pant argue that he is the first-choice keeper in Tests, so his skills ought to be good enough? No, they aren’t. His struggles in Australia and England (never mind catching records on account of bounce) were there for everyone to see. 

In conclusion, if the selectors picked the second keeper-batsman only to replace Dhoni in an injury scenario, then they needed a finished product to fill his big shoes. And Pant is not that option just yet.

Why pick three spinners and not four pacers? 

Again, the answer lies in team combination. With the set formula of using only two pacers, a fourth pacer in the squad will invariably carry drinks and be reduced to a net bowler. In that light, the team management – selectors, captain, coach, et al. – have shown some boldness in going with only three full-time fast bowlers for a World Cup in England. 

Back in 1999, when the ODI World Cup was last staged in those conditions, India took four pacers – Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Ajit Agarkar and Debasis Mohanty – along with Robin Singh fulfilling seam bowling all-rounder duties and Sourav Ganguly the part-time seam option. But that was a different era, wherein English pitches weren’t flat tracks. Today, however, even England lay out belters thanks largely due to the change in the style of play of their team. 

Keeping that in mind, two spinners in the playing eleven becomes a necessity, all the more if they are proven leg spinners. With Shankar and Pandya providing the seam bowling all-around options, India doesn’t need the third pacer in the playing eleven or a fourth pacer in the squad. 

Ravindra Jadeja then comes into the picture because Kohli likes to play around with his team combinations. There could be the odd match in seam-friendly conditions (English weather changes in the blink of an eye!) wherein he might play three pacers, or drop another wrist spinner and strengthen the batting with an extra all-rounder, or even play a left-arm spinner to counter the opposition’s batting line-up. 

With Rahul as the back-up opener and Karthik as back-up keeper batsman, there was no need to take an additional batsman. The seamers were quite enough already, and so Jadeja’s inclusion comes across as a bold gamble. 

Will it work, though, is the main question? 

Well, India’s success at the World Cup will largely depend on the fortunes of their first-choice eleven. Anything beyond that is unchartered territory.