The probability of Rishabh Pant and KL Rahul making the Indian World Cup squad inched closer to reality after both players were named for both the T20I and ODI series at home against Australia. Also making a comeback were Virat Kohli and Jasprit Bumrah after the selectors allowed them to take a break recently to manage their workload.
Kohli, who was rested for the final five matches of the New Zealand tour - two ODIs and three T20Is - will lead a full-strength team against Australia when the series starts with the T20Is on February 24 and 27. The two teams will then play five ODIs between March 2 and 13.
Ahead of the selection meeting, which took place in Mumbai on Friday, the key question for MSK Prasad's panel was whether to pick Pant, who has played just three ODIs, despite the player having the strong backing of both cricketing pundits and fans. Prasad told ESPNcricinfo recently that the wicketkeeper was "undoubtedly" a part of the 20-member pool shortlisted for the World Cup because of his "phenomenal" form over the past ten months.
An explosive batsman from Delhi, with big scores in both IPL and Ranji Trophy cricket, Pant's stocks have grown since his performances on India A's tour of England last year. He made his Test debut at Trent Bridge in 2018 and scored 114 in the second innings of the series at The Oval, and then cracked 159 not out against Australia in the New Year's Test in Sydney, innings that stood out for his composure as much as his strokeplay. The selectors opted to give the 20-year old a break during the limited-overs series in Australia and New Zealand, where Dinesh Karthik played the back-up for MS Dhoni.
Karthik does not feature in the home series against Australia. He had been part of India's limited-overs squads since the England tour last year and had done well as the team's finisher. But does his exclusion now mean he's out of World Cup contention? Prasad did not think so.
"Prior to this we had two series in New Zealand and Australia, that is where Karthik was chosen," he explained. "Because Rishabh played four Test matches, so we wanted him to get a good break. He had a 20 days' break. Then he played a couple of one-day matches against England Lions, in which he did extremely well. Then we sent him to the T20 matches (in New Zealand). So we want to give him a few ODIs also before taking a final call."
Prasad also said that both the selectors and Kohli, who attended the meeting over tele-conference, felt Pant, being a left-handed batsman, offered the chance of a left-right combination in the middle order, something India have not had since Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina fell out of reckoning.
Rahul was the other key player the selectors had to take a call on. His form has been poor over the last 12 months and then he was suspended by the BCCI - along with Hardik Pandya - for his comments on an Indian talk show recently. The 26-year-old top-order batsman has since returned to action, scoring back-to-back 80s for India A against England Lions recently and now has the opportunity to prove his credentials once again at international level.
Another interesting selection is that of Tamil Nadu allrounder Vijay Shankar, who made his ODI debut in Melbourne in January. With Ravindra Jadeja and Khaleel Ahmed not picked for this Australia series, it is possible India's selectors and team management think they don't need a fourth specialist fast bowler for the World Cup.
Kohli has frequently stressed how teams like England score massive totals because they have allrounders even at No. 8 and 9 and so can keep going hard at the ball no matter the match situation. India seem to be going that route as well with the inclusions of Vijay, Hardik and Kedar Jadhav.
Since replacing the then suspended Hardik midway through the ODI series in Australia, Vijay has batted at No. 3 in T20Is and also helped India recover from 18 for 4 on a seaming pitch in Hamilton to ultimately win that 50-over game.
"Vijay Shankar's performance in the recent series [in New Zealand] has really changed a bit of the dynamics," Prasad said. "He brings in that double impact to the side, which is good enough. That's why we have included him and we'll see how he performs in the next few matches."
The selectors named two ODI squads for the series against Australia but there was only one difference between them. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who is part of the T20I team, has been rested for the first two ODIs and in his place Siddarth Kaul has been picked. He essentially replaces Rajasthan left-arm seamer Khaleel, who has been part of India's limited-over set-up since making his debut in the Asia Cup last year.
Meanwhile, Punjab legspinner Mayank Markande, who made headlines for Mumbai Indians in the last IPL, has been included as a back-up spinner in the T20I squad after the selectors were impressed with his form against England Lions. Earlier in the day, Markande had helped India A win the second unofficial Test in three days with a five-for. Markande took the place of Kuldeep Yadav, who has been rested for the T20I leg after the long tour of Australia and New Zealand.