Four years after he was discarded from India's T20I set-up, R Ashwin has forced his way back in, named in the squad of 15 for the 2021 T20 World Cup. In another surprise move, the BCCI has roped in former captain MS Dhoni as the team mentor specifically for this tournament. Dhoni, who retired from international cricket last August, was appointed to "provide support and direction" to the Indian team management led by head coach Ravi Shastri. So said BCCI secretary Jay Shah.
The main group of 15 comprises six specialist batters, three allrounders, three specialist spinners and three specialist fast bowlers. The selection panel led by former India fast bowler Chetan Sharma also named the trio of Shreyas Iyer, Deepak Chahar and Shardul Thakur as reserves, who will act as injury or Covid-19 replacements.
'Ashwin is an asset'
Two spin-bowling allrounders along with three specialist spinners make it abundantly clear that the selectors and team management expect the pitches in the UAE to be quite slow, especially after they take on the workload of 31 IPL matches.
"If the wickets are such that you can only play two fast men, there is no point then to bench (the extra fast bowlers). Instead you have utility players who will come in handy at some point in the match and that is why you have spinners and allrounders," Chetan said on Wednesday in his first media briefing as the chairman of selectors.
The return of Ashwin, whose last T20I was on the tour of the West Indies in July 2017, is significant. In 2019, Ashwin had noted that he was no slouch in white-ball cricket and it was a "perception" that wristspinners are better than fingerspinners, especially in the limited-overs format, that had kept him out of the Indian squad.
Ashwin has missed 63 T20Is for India but in that time he has continued to be a threat in the IPL, first for Punjab Kings and now for Delhi Capitals.
This March Ashwin said he found questions about his return to India's white-ball teams "laughable" but was confident he would produce "a game-breaking performance" if given a chance.
"When you got to a World Cup you need an offspinner," Chetan said. "The wickets are likely to be low and slow as the IPL's latter half will be played in the UAE and that will help the spinners. Washington Sundar is part of the injured list and Ashwin has been an asset for the team and the way he has performed in the IPL that is the reason he has found a place in the team."
Why no Chahal?
On the omission of Chahal, Chetan indicated that the selectors found Rahul Chahar the better option as lead legspinner. "You want a spinner who can deliver with more speed. Recently we have seen Rahul Chahar bowling with speed. Our view was we need a spinner who can find the grip off the surface at a quicker speed and while we had a lot of discussion on Chahal, we eventually went with Rahul Chahar."
The Indian selectors were also bullish about Varun, who has done well since the 2020 IPL where he took big wickets while playing for Kolkata Knight Riders. While he was picked for the Australia series that followed and then the home series against England, Varun did not play owing to fitness issues. But he did eventually play in the recent Sri Lanka series.
"The world doesn't know what Varun Chakravarthy is. If we ourselves cannot understand (how to read him) what will the batsman know," Chetan argued.
No Kohli in selectors' three openers
As far as the openers were concerned, Chetan was categorical about Kohli not being one of them despite the Indian captain wanting to move up after a short stint during the back end of the England series in March. Chetan said Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul would be the main pair with Kishan as the third opener.
Kishan, who hit a fifty on both T20I and ODI debut this year, had been one of the most potent top-order batters when the IPL was played in the UAE last year. He beat Iyer, who has been injured and out of action for the last six months.
"Kishan can bat as an opener as well as he can fit into the middle order anytime," Chetan said. "And a left-hand option is always important. If the opposition has legspinners then an explosive left-hander is always important. So Ishan Kishan is giving us a lot of opportunities: if we need an opener he can do that having already done that and got a fifty in his first game. In the middle-order he is a good player of spin."
On Kohli the opener, Chetan said the selectors feel he is better as the pivot in the middle order. "If the need of hour is that the management thinks that Virat should open then that is up to them, but for the moment we have three openers - Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Ishan Kishan. Virat is an asset for the team. When he plays in the middle-order the team players around him."
Chetan was diplomatic on why Dhawan, who has been among the best batters in the last three IPLs, could not find a spot. "He is a very important player for us. He was the captain in Sri Lanka. What discussion we had on him, I can't disclose. But he is there in the loop. The need of the hour was that we wanted to look at other players while we give rest to Dhawan."
Pandya 100% fit to bowl, but why no Natarajan?
One fast bowler who is bound to feel disappointed would be T Natarajan. A knee injury following his triumphant return from Australia earlier this year has resulted in him going down the pecking order.
"The selectors decided to have three fast bowlers with Hardik Pandya as the fourth (fast) bowler," Chetan said. "We definitely had a discussion on T Natarajan, but he hasn't played cricket for a long time and he is part of the injury list and that is reason we stuck to the main guys."
Chetan was clear that Pandya would bowl his entire quota of overs, something he has not done consistently since his return from back surgery in 2020. Pandya has bowled just 46 overs for India in this period. He hasn't bowled at all for Mumbai Indians since the 2020 IPL although that is likely to change come the second half of the season.