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India's T20I line-up: Who will be the second spinner? Or the back-up opener?

With big players sitting out the South Africa series, here's a chance for others to answer key questions and stake a claim for a ticket to Australia

Hemant Brar
Hemant Brar
Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav reunite at the India nets, India vs West Indies, 1st ODI, Ahmedabad, February 5, 2022

Will Kul-Cha become a permanent partnership once again?  •  BCCI

India turn their focus on preparations for the T20 World Cup, to be held in Australia in October-November, with the five-match T20I series against South Africa starting on Thursday. With Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Jasprit Bumrah being rested, it's a chance for some of the back-ups to stake their claims.
One big conundrum India face is fitting Dinesh Karthik in the XI, but that is a discussion on its own. Here are a few other questions that need answering.
Who fits into the open middle-order slot?
Only one spot is up for grabs in India's middle order. But it's like a government job opening in the country - there are way more candidates than positions to be filled.
First, there is Shreyas Iyer who destroyed Sri Lanka with 57* off 28, 74* off 44 and 73* off 45 before the IPL. All those runs came from No. 3, a slot Iyer feels is best for him. But in all likelihood Kohli, his current form notwithstanding, will bat there at the World Cup. Iyer has done equally well at No. 4 too in the past, so it's not like he cannot bat lower down the order. The only thing is he prefers to take his time to settle in, something he would need to work on.
The next candidate is Deepak Hooda, fresh from his best IPL ever with 451 runs at a strike rate of 136.66. More importantly, he batted everywhere from No. 3 to No. 6 with equal ease. Another thing that goes in his favour is he can also chip in with the ball if need be.
Then there is Suryakumar Yadav, currently out of the side with a forearm injury but a 360-degree batter who can attack from the get-go. With Rahul Tripathi and Sanju Samson also knocking on the door, this series is a golden opportunity for Iyer and Hooda to make their case.
Who is the second spinner?
With 27 wickets in IPL 2022, Yuzvendra Chahal confirmed his status as India's No. 1 T20I spinner, but the second spinner's slot is not yet sealed. A year ago, Ravindra Jadeja would have walked into that role, but a below-par IPL followed by an injury has opened the door for others.
In Axar Patel, India have a like-for-like replacement for Jadeja. Axar can bowl four overs regularly, score quick runs in lower middle order and is an excellent fielder. But like Jadeja, he is not a wicket-taking bowler and spins the ball in the same direction as Chahal. The latter could be a problem against a side with multiple left-hand batters.
That's where Kuldeep Yadav comes in. An attacking wristspinner, Kuldeep appears to have found his rhythm again after a few tweaks to his action. He also spins the ball away from left-hand batters, complementing Chahal.
Ravi Bishnoi is another contender, bringing along quick googlies, sliders and legbreaks. He made a good first impression during the West Indies series in February 2022 but remains a work in progress.
Will India find their back-up opener?
India's search for a back-up opener for Rohit and KL Rahul is still on. For the 2021 T20 World Cup, the selectors had picked Ishan Kishan for that role, saying he could also bat in the middle order if required. That he bats left-handed was seen as an "important" quality, and his wicketkeeping was a bonus.
However, his current form flatters to deceive. In IPL 2022, he did score 418 runs but at a strike rate of just 120.11. And if Karthik makes it to the World Cup squad, India will not need a third keeper with Rahul also available to keep.
As an opener, Kishan faces stiff competition from Ruturaj Gaikwad. While Kishan is seen as an aggressor, Gaikwad is more of an anchor. Gaikwad didn't have a great IPL, but he showed glimpses of occasional brilliance. The South Africa series will give both batters another chance to impress.
Who will win the race among the fast men?
With Bumrah not in the squad, there are likely to be plenty of opportunities for those next in line.
At his best, Bhuvneshwar Kumar is among the top seamers in the world. He had a decent IPL, but India would want him to display consistency and potency. In the absence of Mohammed Shami and Deepak Chahar, he can make great strides towards being India's preferred new-ball bowler. Not to forget, he can be as good as anyone in the death overs as well.
From the new crop, there's Umran Malik and Arshdeep Singh. Both had head-turning IPL seasons. Malik set the stage alight with his pace and emerged as the middle-overs enforcer for Sunrisers Hyderabad, taking 22 wickets in 14 games.
Arshdeep relied on his consistency to keep batters quiet at the death. He had only ten wickets from 14 games but his death-overs economy of 7.58 was second only to Bumrah's 7.38 (min. ten overs). For both Umran and him, it will be about replicating their IPL success at the international level if the opportunity presents itself.
Between new and old is Avesh Khan. He has been around the team for a while now but made his T20I debut only earlier this year. Unlike Umran and Arshdeep, he can bowl in all phases of the innings. Essentially, India are spoilt for choice in the fast-bowling department.

Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo