India are being drummed up as favourites for the World Cup later this year, on the back of their formidable top order and a lethal bowling attack that features two match-winning wristspinners.
With the tournament less than four months away, India’s selectors are busy working out which 15 players will offer the side the right balance. On the back of the Asia Cup win, followed by victories in the ODI series in Australia and New Zealand recently, most positions seem taken, barring a couple.
The chairman of the selection panel, former India wicketkeeper MSK Prasad, talks about the World Cup line-up, and how the team now has impressive bench strength in the Test arena.
India have registered convincing victories against Australia and New Zealand in ODIs. Do you think the 15 spots for the World Cup are sealed?
Yes, I do. Maybe one spot might go to the last minute, otherwise we are very clear about the rest. The reason behind that one-odd spot still being open is due to the new dimension that has come up after the performance of some of the players in Australia and New Zealand. That is the reason we are saying that maybe one spot needs to be sealed. We might do that after the upcoming home series against Australia.
You recently said that the planning for the World Cup began after the 2017 Champions Trophy. What were the areas that you identified that needed to be addressed by the time of picking the final 15?
We had done extremely well in the Champions Trophy, having reached the final. But the selection panel felt the spin department needed more variety. [R] Ashwin and [Ravindra] Jadeja had delivered, but we still felt we needed to add variety to the attack. That is how [Yuzvendra] Chahal and Kuldeep [Yadav]came in. The results are there to see: together they have won 70% of the matches they have played in. They have sharpened and strengthened the bowling department.
What made you to go for two wristspinners?
The pitches in England were hard and bouncy, which is likely again during the World Cup. We felt the wristspinner can have more of a say on such pitches than a fingerspinner.
Last summer India lost the ODI series in England 2-1. With less than a year to go to the World Cup at the time, what were the areas that needed to be addressed?
The middle order was one area of concern. But now, after the series in Australia and New Zealand, we feel we have filled the spots in the middle order. I am very happy the players we brought in to address that concern have done well and delivered. Whatever the shortcomings were, they have been dealt with.
By middle order you mean No. 4 and 5, presumably. Ambati Rayuduand Dinesh Karthik, along with MS Dhoni have been identified to perform the No. 4 role. The soft underbelly of the Indian middle order was exposed in the absence of Virat Kohli and Dhoni in the Hamilton ODI by Trent Boult. Do you think Rayudu and Karthik have cleared the concerns?
I can’t talk about individuals, but we are happy with the men we picked for the middle-order slots.
What was it about Rayudu that made the selectors feel he can deliver?
We needed solidity in the middle order. We tried a few players but were not convinced with their performances in that No. 4 spot. We wanted someone experienced and a bit of a mature head. Rayudu had done well in the last IPL, and despite that being T20, we included him in the ODI squad for the England series as we felt he could do well at No. 4. He has done reasonably well in the opportunities and convinced everyone that he is the guy.
Rishabh Pant is spoken of highly by fans due to his style and form last year. What does he offer to the ODI set-up that makes him a contender for a World Cup berth?
His progress in the last one year has been phenomenal across formats. We felt he needs a bit of maturity now, to gain more experience. That is reason we have included him in India A series wherever possible. The hundred he got in the Sydney Test, the 73 he got for India A on a testing pitch against England Lionsrecently speaks of his maturity. Against the Lions, India A were struggling, and everybody thought they had lost the match, but Rishabh showed skill and patience to win the match.
So Pant is in contention for the World Cup?
Undoubtedly he is in contention.
But if you include him, you might have to leave out a bowler or even an allrounder.
That is something we need to figure out. A year ago we were struggling with quite a few slots, but now that we have exposed certain players and they have delivered, they have left us with so many happy and healthy choices. We just need to strike a good balance between experience and youthful exuberance. At times we need those characters who can play the fearless sorts of innings required at this level. Finding the right balance is the key, and picking the right combination.
You said the performances of some of the players in Australia and New Zealand have added a new dimension to selection for World Cup. Is Vijay Shankar one of the players who impressed you?
Definitely. In whatever opportunities he has got, Vijay Shankar has shown the skillsets required at this level. We have been grooming him through India A tours in the last two years. But we will have to see where he can fit in the dynamics of this team.
Kohli has pointed out that allrounders add depth to the team and give various options in terms of combinations. Does Shankar give you another option for the allrounder spot?
We have four good allrounders to choose from: Hardik Pandya, Kedar Jadhav, Ravindra Jadeja and Vijay Shankar. They obviously add depth in both bowling and batting. But we have to look at the team balance, we cannot pick all four. How many we pick in the World Cup squad will depend on the various permutations and combinations.
It is not an easy job, is it, selection?
It is not. A year ago we could have picked a team just like that. But now if you see, even a guy like Krunal Pandya, he has delivered. That adds a new dimension to the discussion.
Other than fearlessness, what are the other characteristics that you look for in a player before picking him for a tournament like a World Cup?
You need players with maturity. You need players with a balanced head. If you look at the Indian World Cup squad in 2011, there was a good mix of youngsters and seniors. You had Virat, who had just come up in the international circuit. You had Sreesanth, who was still young. That was balanced with the experienced players like Sachin [Tendulkar] and [Virender] Sehwag. Even in the 1983 World Cup, the Indian squad was a good mix of experience and young guys.
One man who has that maturity, experience, level-headedness and fearlessness is Dhoni. He turns 38 in July – when he is likely to be playing his fourth World Cup. He is an integral part of the leadership group. But there have been several occasions where his batting has come into question in the last year or so, mainly due to the expectations a great player like him carries on his back due to his past deeds. How do you look at his position?
The way Mahi has played in the last couple of series, in Australia and New Zealand, the message is very, very clear: now he has decided to play his natural way. This is the Dhoni that we know. We will be very happy if he can replicate those fearless knocks, using that brutal force he has within him. At some point, perhaps because of shortage of match time, he might have been short of runs. But now that he is playing continuously, you can see his touch once again.
Also, importantly, before India head to the World Cup, he will be playing the IPL. So he will be playing in 14-16 matches – all high-intensity games. That will only help him extend that form he has caught on the Australia and New Zealand tours. I am very happy with his batting.