Sunday, August 12, 2012

Surprises aplenty in India's World T20 squad

With the announcement of India's squad for the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka, the BCCI has certainly challenged the monopoly of the PCB in the most surprising squad selections. The return of Yuvraj Singh understandably grabs all the headlines. Plenty of match-winning batsmen are in the squad, while the bowling selections indicate that cricketing logic has taken a backseat.

The top order:
There might not be a better top order in twenty20 cricket right now, especially in subcontinental conditions. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir combine to form a destructive opening partnership. Sehwag will be expected to launch attacks from the very first over itself, delivering momentum and providing ballast to the beginning of the innings.

Gautam Gambhir has the rare ability of accelerating the strike rate without ever looking like getting out. Gambhir will face some challenges against genuinely fast bowling, however on the pitches of Sri Lanka he should be able to ride out the storm, before he does what he is best at - launching an assault against spin bowlers.

Swing, seam, pace, spin, loop or drift seem to be of no hindrance to Virat Kohli. India's best player in all forms of the game in 2012, Kohli will be expected to dominate opposing bowling attacks. An excellent runner between the wickets, Kohli knows how to pick the right moments to express his wristy elegance, and then go berserk with some audacious power-hitting.

The middle order:
Suresh Raina has an excellent record in Sri Lanka, and has saved some of his best performances for the national team in these conditions. His struggles against bounce are unlikely to surface on these pitches, allowing Raina to be the perfect left-handed compliment to Kohli in the middle overs.

Yuvraj Singh is the real story of the middle order. Just a few months after successful cancer surgery, the man of the series in the 50-over world cup has now been selected for the twenty20 world cup. On form and full fitness, there is no doubt that Yuvraj is a match-winner in the limited overs game. However, without having played any competitive cricket for a while, it would be a brave gamble to predict Yuvraj hitting the straps straight away. He might need the first group stage to ease himself back to form.

If Yuvraj does end up being selected in the starting eleven, the number 6 spot will be a straight fight between Rohit Sharma and Manoj Tiwary. That the talented Rohit is in this position in the first place is a damning indictment of his mental strength and commitment. Rohit has given away his wicket too easily in the past 6 months, and as a result Manoj Tiwary is a genuine contender for a place in the first team. Tiwary has matured tremendously in the past year, and after awaiting his chance for quite a while, has impressed on each outing for Team India.

MS Dhoni completes the middle order, and there just couldn't possibly be a better finisher at number 7. While not the master blaster of yore, Dhoni has developed the knack of assessing situations to perfection, always maintaining a calm disposition in even the most tense and nerve-wracking moments of the game. Dhoni will be expected to provide attacking momentum in the slog overs if India bat first, and can also be relied upon to close out tricky games for the team while chasing targets.

The All-rounders:
After his extremely successful return in the limited over series in Sri Lanka, Irfan Pathan has momentarily closed the debate about the all-rounders spot in the team. The younger Pathan's batting has improved in leaps and bounds, mixing belligerent big hits with exquisitely timed drives and flicks befitting of a middle-order batsman. Most heartening for Indian fans though was Irfan's performance with the ball, where he managed to take wickets with both, the new ball and the old ball.

The rest of the all-round options will see India relying on batsmen who can bowl a bit, and bowlers who can bat a bit. In slow conditions, Raina, Sehwag, Yuvraj and even Tiwary will be expected to turn their arm over. It's also likely that R Ashwin and possibly even Harbhajan Singh will be needed at some stage to deliver some lusty blows in the later stages of the innings.

The Bowling attack:
Irrespective of the format or conditions, bowling continues to be the achilles heel of the Indian team. Zaheer Khan is the leader of the attack. Zaheer was instrumental in India winning the ODI World Cup, however he hasn't been as effective in his t20 career so far. While it is conceivable that Zaheer could leak runs in the power play, it is in the death overs that the lanky left-armer will have the most crucial role, restricting the opposition with well-directed yorkers and crafty changes of pace.

With Zaheer and Irfan both in the side, India face a real dilemma in selecting the other bowlers. One spot would seem to be nailed by R Ashwin. Ashwin's carrom ball is a real threat in twenty20 cricket, and he also has Dhoni's complete faith and trust to deliver in tough situations. Whether he is called upon to open the bowling or to get a well-set batsman out in the later overs, Ashwin will take on all challenges.

That leaves a three-way battle between the real surprise inclusions of the squad for the final spot. Many would suggest that Harbhajan Singh has been given a recall too quickly. Harbhajan had a terrible IPL, and his flatter bowling in limited overs cricket just doesn't threaten batsman anymore. Piyush Chawla's return to the international fold is even more perplexing, considering the fact that his bowling seems to have become devoid of guile since he first got selected 3 years ago, and his returns in the wickets column just keep diminishing while his economy keeps increasing. The return of Laxmipathy Balaji is the feel-good story of the squad. His impressive form and consistency in the IPL are the key factors in his inclusion. However, Balaji does have the alarming tendency to unravel in pressure situations, and in an international tournament on the world stage his inclusion constitutes a big gamble. The last option is Ashok Dinda, but this tournament might just have come too soon for him, and his lack of experience could prove costly if selected.

The Final Verdict:
After winning the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup in 2007, India have severely disappointed in subsequent versions of the tournament. They have failed to win a single Super 8 match in the last two tournaments, however they certainly stand a better chance of improving on that record in the subcontinent.

Sri Lanka is the closest that India will come to having a second home, and the whole squad has extensive experience of these conditions. India winning the last international tournament played by all major nations, could also be an important psychological factor when it boils down to the knock-out games.

The bowling as usual remains a weak point, and could be exposed in a super 8 group that barring any upsets should include Australia, South Africa and Pakistan. That being said, with the wickets in Sri Lanka expected to be dry come September, the variety in spin could conceivably negate any weaknesses in the attack. An extremely powerful batting line-up coupled with Dhoni's astute stewardship, should enable India to deliver a really good performance at the World Twenty20, with an outside chance of repeating their 2007 success.