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Kohli rules out Ashwin's white-ball return and backs Sundar as first-choice

"Washington has been doing really well for us, so you can't have two players of the same discipline playing in one squad"

Deivarayan Muthu
Washington has been doing really well for us" - Virat Kohli  •  Getty Images

Washington has been doing really well for us" - Virat Kohli  •  Getty Images

There is no room for R Ashwin in India's T20I squad unless the incumbent offspin-bowling allrounder Washington Sundar has a "drastically horrible season," according to captain Virat Kohli.
Ashwin last played white-ball cricket for India in July 2017, with the team management veering towards the wristspin duo of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav following the defeat against Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final. Sundar, who made his T20 debut in the IPL that year, has now grown into India's first-choice offspinner in T20Is.
With Ashwin and Sundar offering largely similar skills-sets, Kohli said that India can't fit both of them in the squad as they plan for the T20 World Cup slated to be held in India later this year.
"Washington has been doing really well for us, so you can't have two players of the same discipline playing in one squad," Kohli said at a virtual media conference, a day out of the T20I series opener against England in Ahmedabad. "Unless, Washi has a drastically horrible season and things go south for him….the question has to be asked with some kind of logic as well. You suggest where you would add Ash and play him in the team when someone like Washington already does that job for the team. So, it's easy to ask the question but you should have a logical explanation to it yourself."
Earlier in February, former India opener Gautam Gambhir told ESPNcricinfo that he was surprised at Ashwin's continued omission from India's white-ball sides.
"He is such a great bowler that people don't talk about his batting," Gambhir said of Ashwin." And it amazes me that he doesn't play white-ball cricket. So how much is he doing to surprise all of us? It's actually a shame that he hasn't played white-ball cricket for the last two years after winning what nine Man-of-the-Series awards [in Test cricket].
"People have made comebacks into Test cricket with white-ball performances, which is probably not the right way because white-ball cricket is different to red-ball cricket. But, a bowler who has done phenomenally well in red-ball cricket has not made a comeback in the last two years in white-ball cricket. And he does perform in the IPL as well - he bowls with the new ball, he bowls with the old ball, he bowls at the death. He bowls at every stage of the game."
Since IPL 2017, Ashwin has picked up 48 wickets in 52 T20s at an economy rate of 7.59 to add to 277 runs with the bat at a strike rate of just under 126. In comparison, since his IPL debut in 2017, Sundar has had the benefit of playing more T20s, taking 67 wickets in 87 games at an economy rate of 6.61.
During this period, Sundar also emerged as a powerplay spinner for Rising Pune Supergiant and more recently Royal Challengers Bangalore. And in T20I cricket since his debut in December 2017, Sundar has grabbed 13 wickets in the powerplay in 21 matches at an economy rate of 6.64. Only six other bowlers, among Full-Member nations, have more wickets than Sundar in the first six overs during this phase, with New Zealand's Tim Southee leading the list with 21 strikes in 38 matches.
With the bat, Sundar is a bit of an unproven talent in the IPL and T20Is although he has made some match-winning contributions for his state team Tamil Nadu and his TNPL sides. Sundar recently showed his batting chops in Test cricket, twice coming close to a century in the home Test series against England and even impressing his coach Ravi Shastri.
As for the upcoming T20I series against England, the Indian team management may have to make an immediate choice between Sundar and Axar Patel - the two fingerspin-bowling allrounders in the squad. It remains to be seen whether the presence of a long list of left-handers in England's potential XI - Dawid Malan, Ben Stokes, Eoin Morgan, Moeen Ali and Sam Curran - works in Sundar's favour.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo