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MISSION T20 WORLD CUP: INDIA HAVE LOTS TO DO

With KL Rahul out, Rishabh Pant will lead India in these five T20Is with the returning Hardik Pandya named vice-captain.

RIshabh Pant India Captain
Coming off a poor IPL, Rishabh Pant has replaced KL Rahul as India's T20I captain. (Image: BCCI)

And so, some ten days after the completion of the IPL, the Indian men’s cricket team starts another T20I series. There is no Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli or Jasprit Bumrah and the three regular players who picked up injuries before or during IPL 2022 – Deepak Chahar, Ravindra Jadeja and Suryakumar Yadav – are still not fit. Some new faces have been added, Hardik Pandya is back and Dinesh Karthik has been given another crack at international cricket at the age of 36.

And on the eve of the first T20I in New Delhi, news came that India’s stand-in captain KL Rahul and wristspinner Kuldeep Yadav had been ruled out of the series, which means that Rishabh Pant will lead the home team.

This series marks the start of a very busy period of T20I action for India. Around one Test match – the fifth and final spilled over from last year’s series in England – and six ODIs, the Indian cricket team will play as many as 25 Twenty20 internationals in the buildup to the 2022 T20 World Cup in Australia.

The men’s schedule confirmed last month by the BCCI includes 20 bilateral T20Is versus England, Ireland, West Indies, Sri Lanka and Australia between June and September, and with the Asia Cup thrown in, India could play upto 25 matches in all.

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In a T20 World Cup year, this amount of T20I games is understandable. Also, India’s abject performance at the previous edition held in the UAE last year, where they lost their first two matches to face near certain elimination in the league stage, shifts the focus to them with increased scrutiny. Rohit and Kohli are coming off a very poor IPL season, Bumrah was sorely lacking in wicket-taking skill barring one spectacular match, and the likes of Ishan Kishan, Pant and Venkatesh Iyer have questions hanging over their heads.

Hardik Pandya IPL 2022
Hardik Pandya has made a resounding comeback in IPL 2022. (Image: BCCI)

Currently ranked No 1 in T20Is, the Indian cricket team will chase a record 13th consecutive victory in the format when it hosts South Africa in the first of five matches at home on June 9. This series will be followed by two T20Is versus Ireland on the tour of the United Kingdom, which then sees India play three T20Is against England.

A white-ball trip to the West Indies includes three T20Is, and then India are scheduled to tour Sri Lanka for a couple T20Is before the Asia Cup, which though scheduled to be played in the island nation has reportedly not been confirmed on account of the BCCI wanting to see how Sri Lanka’s upcoming series with Australia pans out. After the Asia Cup, the Australian men’s team will make a flying visit to India in September for three T20Is.

Performances in the recently concluded 15th season of the IPL have been taken into account, with Karthik recalled and two uncapped pace bowlers with very specific and different skills sets, Umran Malik and Arshdeep Singh, earning their first call-ups. The return of Pandya, who has not played for India since the 2021 T20 World Cup, after a stellar IPL run which saw him score 487 runs and take eight wickets while captaining new entrants Gujarat Titans to the title, is a big boost for India. Will India punt and bat Pandya at No 4 in these South Africa games to allow Pant, now saddled with the captaincy, to bat a bit more freely at No 5 and with Karthik the finisher to follow?

Regarding Karthik, for so many years a selfless stop-gap, plug-filler player, this is the time for the Indian team management to let him bat as a finisher, where he has been most successful over the past four years.

Dinesh Karthik IPL 2022 stats
Dinesh Karthik was virtually unstoppable in IPL 2022. (Image: BCCI/IPL)

How these players perform could well dictate whether they travel to the UK, the Caribbean and Sri Lanka, and no doubt the selectors will watch each of these series with a view on the World Cup. While fans of Indian cricket will hope that Rohit and Kohli regain their lost touch, if you were to pick India’s starting XI for their first match of the World Cup, the two would occupy two of the top three spots. Who opens with Rohit remains to be seen, because now that Rahul will miss these five T20Is versus South Africa, a chance has opened up for Ishan Kishan to partner Ruturaj Gaikward.

Now, looking at the rescheduled fifth and final Test between India and England which is set to run from July 1-5 in Birmingham, it is highly unlike that Rohit, Rahul, Kohli and Bumrah will slot in two days later for the first of five T20Is versus the hosts. Should Chahar and Suryakumar return for this series – and it is expected that they will – they will need to make up for lost time and try to fit back into the XI and justify their places.

Before Suryakumar got injured and Shreyas Iyer’s T20 form nosedived while captaining Kolkata Knight Riders in IPL 2022, it seemed the two were competing for the same spot in India’s T20I batting order. But as in cricket, things change rather fast. Pant will also have to pick himself up to confirm his role as India’s first-choice wicketkeeper, after a middling run as Delhi Capitals captain in the IPL, and with Karthik back in the mix as a proven finisher.

Kuldeep’s sudden injury has opened up a chance for Ravi Bishnoi to pair up with Yuzvendra Chahal, and Axar Patel returning gives India a second left-arm spinning option. In the pace stocks, with Mohammed Shami not in the current squad for the South Africa series and Bumrah rested, how Avesh Khan, Arshdeep and Umran fare could determine the road to Australia.

India’s T20I squad for SA series: Rishabh Pant (capt/wk), Ruturaj Gaikwad, Ishan Kishan (wk), Deepak Hooda, Shreyas Iyer, Dinesh Karthik (wk), Hardik Pandya (vc), Venkatesh Iyer, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Axar Patel, Ravi Bishnoi, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Harshal Patel, Avesh Khan, Arshdeep Singh, Umran Malik

Written by Jamie Alter

Sports writer, author, actor, anchor, digital content creator and TedX Talks speaker.

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