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India eyes Asian dominance as World Cup selection looms

With the World Cup looming large, all roads will eventually lead back home for the Indian team. Its odyssey will lay at anchor on the Lankan shores for over two weeks as Rohit Sharma’s men look to reclaim the continental title and then head home for the quadrennial global event, hopefully with a few more answers and a lot wiser.

But the Asian waters are choppy. The Men in Blue learned it the hard way at the T20 Asia Cup in the UAE in 2022, when, looking to test waters with less than two months left for the T20 World Cup in Australia, they fatally faltered against archrival Pakistan and eventual champion Sri Lanka and missed the final.

Chastened, India doesn’t strut into the race of the Asian heavyweights as an overwhelming favourite this time around. Instead, it tiptoes into a tournament susceptible to quirks of fate as the lines between the haves and the have-nots blur increasingly.

However, a near-full-strength Indian squad, assembling for the first time in more than a year in the 50-over format, should inspire confidence. The return of Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul from injury lends clarity to India’s middle-order muddle, while the sight of the inimitable Jasprit Bumrah bounding in again bodes well for its pace stocks.

But a squad on paper and the match fitness of its constituents are two different things. Iyer, slated as India’s No. 4, last played international cricket in March, while Rahul, India’s first-choice ODI wicketkeeper in the absence of Rishabh Pant, has a niggle that is unrelated to his original injury and could miss the first two or three games.

Rahul’s predicament could be a double-edged sword. Ishan Kishan is the reserve wicketkeeper and doesn’t quite fit the bill as Rahul’s like-for-like replacement in the middle order, where he averages 21.2 in six innings. However, a bold management call could see him open the batting, which he showed was his calling with three back-to-back fifties in the Caribbean.

The lack of backup options for potential injuries in the middle order has put India’s buildup to the World Cup under a cloud and dampened the confidence that would typically emanate whenever the Men in Blue hosted an ICC event. Four years after India’s semifinal defeat against New Zealand at the 2019 World Cup, some scars still linger.

The debate around the No. 4 spot, which seems to have abated with the return of Iyer, has historically defied logic. In the 12 months leading up to the 2019 showpiece, Ambati Rayudu hogged the limelight at No. 4, scoring 464 runs in 14 innings while averaging over 42. But Vijay Shankar was paradropped into the scheme of things for his ‘three-dimensional’ skillset. Pant, who wasn’t part of the initial 15-member squad, occupied that position more than anybody else during the tournament.

A similar tale raised eyebrows when India last hosted the World Cup in 2011. Rohit was India’s most prolific No. 4 in the year preceding the tournament and averaged in excess of 50 in that position. He didn’t find a spot in the squad, but luckily for India, Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh more than made up for his exclusion.

Rohit, the captain, and the selectors have broken the norm and backed India’s most consistent No. 4 in the last 12 months—Iyer. However, the search for a backup has been erratic. India has tried five different batters at that position in its last six ODIs, straddling over a 1-2 series defeat to Australia at home and a 2-1 win in the Caribbean. The only half-centurion in these experiments, Sanju Samson, is a travelling reserve, while Suryakumar Yadav makes the cut with two consecutive golden ducks in the corresponding period or an overall average of 6 in the current World Cup cycle.

To be fair, the sample size is small. Injuries and constant shuffling have meant that nine batters have been tried at No. 4 in 21 matches in the past year, with Iyer’s run of eight matches being the longest, followed by four for Kishan, who doesn’t seem to be fit in the starting XI, barring injuries.

Now, Tilak Varma has been thrown into the mix for the Asia Cup, the left-hander’s eleventh-hour inclusion coming on the back of a bevy of runs in his debut T20I series, against West Indies, but without any experience in international one-dayers.

Role clarity and continuity have been lacking, and it hasn’t helped that India’s mainstays have made intermittent ODI appearances in a year packed with 32 T20Is. Shubman Gill is the only player to have played at least 75 per cent of India’s one-dayers in the past 12 months. Though the shortest format gaining currency and India’s desperation to end its ICC title drought have played into the team featuring in an increasing number of T20Is, it is perhaps instructive that the Men in Blue played only eight, seven, and 16 T20Is in the 12 months leading up to the 2011, 2015, and 2016 World Cups, respectively.

In a more refreshing break from the past, bowling is India’s strong suit ahead of the 2023 edition. Though Bumrah will return to ODIs after more than a year in the Asia Cup, Mohammed Siraj has surpassed expectations in his absence with 43 wickets in 23 matches at an economy rate of 4.62 since 2022 and pipped veteran Mohammad Shami in the pecking order.

Hardik Pandya’s bowling fitness, Kuldeep Yadav’s return to wicket-taking form, and Ravindra Jadeja’s control of the ball and prowess with the bat hold promising signs.

The only perceivable chink in the lower order is the No. 8 slot, which could be juggled between Axar Patel and Shardul Thakur. Bowling conditions aside, the claimant for the spot could be determined by how India’s batting fares, with Axar being the obvious pick if India finds the need to cushion the tail. The uncertainty around India’s batting has already short-changed the bowling department of a leg-spinner in Yuzvendra Chahal and deprived it of an off-spinner in Washington Sundar or R. Ashwin.

The onus will thus be on India’s top three, Rohit, Gill, and Kohli, to score big, but with the rider, it doesn’t come at a premium because a bona fide finisher still eludes. The void left by MS Dhoni’s departure largely persists, despite Hardik and Jadeja’s attempts.

The Indians will be tested with a potent mix of high-quality pace and spin in conditions similar to those they expect back home for the World Cup.

Pakistan’s pace trio of Shaheen Afridi, Naseem Shah, and Haris Rauf will be a force to be reckoned with, as will the spin duo of Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman. India’s top-order has been vulnerable against both swing and spin at home, as was seen in the series defeat to Australia earlier this year, and it will need to make amends.

Sri Lanka can never be taken lightly at home, and a defeat against it is never an upset, despite its waning pedigree. Afghanistan, meanwhile, will hope to shed the tag of a perennial dark horse and party pooper. Its ODI fortunes may have just turned a corner with a historic 2-1 series win in Bangladesh.

The Tigers are mercurial but humbled India with a series defeat at home late last year. They are back under the leadership of Shakib Al Hasan in ODIs after six years and are itching to settle scores after conceding a couple of Asia Cup finals to India in the last three editions.

The outlier is Nepal, ranked 15th but with an appetite for a challenge, which was on display when it won 11 out of 12 games to advance to the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe in June.

India may be the defending champion of the 50-over Asia Cup, having won a record seventh title in 2018. But with three potential rip-roaring contests against Pakistan on the cards, a home World Cup beckoning, and an Asian decade of sorts on the horizon in 2023, it will be far from a fait accompli.

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