The importance of an allrounder in cricket cannot be overstated. From India's standpoint, it is about finding a seam-bowling allrounder. Finding batsmen who can bowl a little bit of spin, or spinners who can bat reasonably well, hasn't been that difficult. But while that sort of allrounder works all right in subcontinental conditions, they force you to compromise on either the batting department (by playing only five batsmen), or make you go in with only four bowling options overseas. You can't possibly play three spinners outside Asia (in red- or white-ball cricket) and that's why you desperately need a medium-pacer who can bat.
From the days of Kapil Dev, India have tried various options in the seam-bowling allrounder category. The obsession with finding someone with that sort of skill set has led to the India cap being handed out to more than a few mediocre cricketers down the years.
In recent times Hardik Pandya is the only seam-bowling allrounder who has cemented his place in white-ball cricket and has presented himself as a viable option in red-ball cricket too. While his bowling continues to be a work in progress, his batting, especially the ability to hit the long ball, has improved immensely. In fact, he and Rishabh Pant are the only two Indian batsmen who have the power game that is now required from a batsman batting at Nos. 5-7. Initially Pandya's bowling was neither consistent nor penetrative enough for him to finish his quota in games, but of late he has improved in that department too. In my opinion, he still isn't your full-quota bowler in a T20 or ODI, but if used judiciously, he is capable of completing 75% of his allotment most days.
Pant at five, Pandya at six and Ravindra Jadeja at seven would allow both hitting prowess down the order and six bowling options. But Pandya's injury has put a spanner in the works. You wouldn't worry as much if it were an isolated case of one workload-related injury over a five-odd-year-old career, but since he has had injuries almost back to back, you need back-up going forward.
In the current circumstances, Pandya walks back into the XI whenever he is fit but there is little guarantee that he will stay fit for eight to ten months in a row. Also, we don't know what impact his back surgery will have on his bowling. Will he be equally effective, or might it be advisable to manage his bowling workload to ensure longevity? These are too many ifs and buts in a World Cup year.
The Indian selectors kicked off the process of picking players with similar skill sets to shadow Pandya just before the 2019 World Cup. Vijay Shankar was the first man to be tried. The idea was to develop him as a No. 4 batsman and a bowler suited to delivering five or six overs in conditions that suited his craft. Shankar seemed to have the game to bat higher up the order as well. His bowling was the weaker link but that was also the case with Pandya when he started. If you don't have a lot of players in domestic cricket with those all-round skills, you must try to make the most of what is available.
Shankar showed some promise to begin with and then the injury during the World Cup cut short his stint at the top. Incidentally, since then he has become fit and is performing with bat and ball in domestic cricket but he has not even been considered for a comeback - even in Pandya's absence. The fact that India haven't gone back to him even once puts his selection for the World Cup in extremely poor light.
Shivam Dube seems to have replaced Shankar for the time being. Dube is a hard-hitting left-hand batsman who bowls seam-up. He got one opportunity to bat higher up the order in the second T20I against West Indies and he smashed a quick-fire fifty. His bowling is considered his weaker suit but his three wickets, including two in one over against Bangladesh in the deciding T20I of that series turned the game towards India.
Batting at six or lower and looking like the weakest bowling option in the attack can't be easy, so you might think that those two performances would have fetched Dube a longer run in the middle. But that has not been the case. He didn't have a role to play, with bat or ball, in the second T20I against Sri Lanka but was still benched for Manish Pandey in the final match of the series. And he hasn't featured in any of the ODIs against Australia.
In both short formats, India have started going in with only five bowling options and that is a strategy fraught with risk. You would understand the tactic if there wasn't an option, but Dube is part of both squads. If he's not good enough to bat at six and bowl a few overs, he shouldn't be picked at all. More importantly, after showing promise in both departments, he deserves a chance to fail or succeed. You can't make a player international standard, but you can't find out if he is international standard without throwing him in the deep end either.
By not investing in the growth of a seam-bowling allrounder in the absence of Pandya, India are putting all their eggs in one basket. It may be all right to pin your hopes on Pandya's return and longevity, but you also need a back-up plan. Or else the lack of a seam-bowling allrounder will be a problem for India at the T20 World Cup. Like the one about their No. 4 has been.
Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash