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News Analysis

India squad takeaways - Pujara's return, new quicks on the block, and Hardik vs Karthik

What do the selectors' decisions suggest about the immediate future in the two formats?

India's squads for the upcoming T20I series at home against South Africa and the postponed fifth Test against England were named on Sunday evening. Here are five major takeaways.
A recall, and a farewell?
Cheteshwar Pujara is back in the Test squad, and he pretty much forced that decision on the selectors with his rollicking form in the County Championship. How do you ignore 6, 201*, 109, 12, 203, 16, 170* and 3? The selectors possibly factored another reason into his recall as well: in the first four Tests of the series that will end in Edgbaston, he was arguably India's best-performing middle-order batter, his series average of 32.42 masking the vital contributions he made. His third-innings knocks of 45 (off 206 balls) and 61 helped India claw their way back to victory after conceding first-innings leads at Lord's and The Oval respectively, and he top-scored for India with 91 in their defeat at Headingley.
Another senior stalwart, however, isn't part of the squad, and you may wonder whether there is a way back now for Ishant Sharma. For so long an ever-present face in India's attacks overseas, he has slipped behind both Mohammed Siraj and Umesh Yadav in the fast-bowling queue over the last year-and-a-half, and now it would seem Prasidh Krishna as well, as India look for a successor in the tall, hit-the-deck department.
A lack of match practice, however, could be a more immediate reason behind Ishant's non-selection; he hasn't played any competitive cricket since a pair of Ranji Trophy games in February-March, and those were his only matches since India's home Test series against New Zealand in November 2021. But with India's pace reserves constantly growing, you wonder where Ishant will get his next opportunity to turn heads and demand a recall.
Intent machines ignored
Over the last three IPL seasons, Prithvi Shaw has managed a strike rate of 152.84 in the powerplay. In the middle overs, meanwhile, Sanju Samson has achieved strike rates of over 150 against both pace and spin. No other India contender comes close to matching those records.
But that sort of intent always has a flip side - both Shaw and Samson average under 30 in IPL 2022, and this, perhaps, is the reason why neither is part of India's T20I squad even though Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli have been rested and Suryakumar Yadav is out injured.
Instead of powerplay enforcers and intent machines, the selectors seem to have preferred - as they have over a number of years - top-order batters with a penchant for big scores, even if it entails slow starts. The likely opening combination of KL Rahul and Ruturaj Gaikwad says as much.
Equally, though, the selectors could point to Ishan Kishan and Deepak Hooda - whose approach could be termed similar to those of Shaw and Samson respectively, even if their phase-wise IPL numbers don't necessarily match up - as counter-examples to suggest they aren't entirely wedded to an old-school approach.
Long rope for long-term prospects
Kishan (strike rate of 120.11) has been far from at his fluent best during IPL 2022, while Venkatesh Iyer (average of 16.54, strike rate of 107.69) has had a horror season. But both have kept their places in the T20I squad, suggesting that the selectors are backing the players they have identified as long-term prospects, and that IPL form is neither a guarantee of selection nor a deal-breaker.
It helps, too, that both are left-handers who can bat in multiple positions, and that one offers a wicketkeeping option and the other a sixth bowling option.
New quicks on the block
IPL 2022 has been a goldmine for India's selectors in terms of the sheer number of uncapped fast bowlers who have made an impact with their pace, skill, and execution under pressure. Out of that group - which also includes the likes of Mohsin Khan and Mukesh Choudhary - two have earned first-time call-ups to the T20I squad.
The two bring dissimilar but equally exciting skillsets to the table. Umran Malik's sheer pace - consistently upwards of 150kph - and nose-or-toes lengths offer India a bruising middle-overs option that can upset any line-up in the world. Arshdeep Singh isn't as quick, but he's a left-armer with superb defensive skills, as his death-overs economy rate of 7.31 in IPL 2022 (the best in the league among bowlers who have sent down at least ten overs in that phase) would suggest.
With these two in the mix alongside Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Avesh Khan and Harshal Patel, India's squad has a fast bowler for nearly every situation.
How do you fit Hardik and Karthik into the same XI?
Hardik Pandya was always going to be back in India's white-ball plans the moment he resumed bowling. And he hasn't just resumed bowling; his speeds have often veered past 140kph, he's used hard lengths and changes of pace most cleverly, and he sent down his full quota of overs in his first four matches of IPL 2022. A groin issue has reduced his bowling output since then, but India don't necessarily need him to bowl four overs every game. If he can bowl two while striking the ball at even 80% of his potential, he would walk into most T20 line-ups in the world.
Speaking of ball-striking, have a look at Dinesh Karthik's death-overs numbers from IPL 2022: 91 balls, 206 runs, a best-in-the-league strike rate of 226.37. At nearly 37, Karthik probably reckoned his best chance of knocking on the selectors' doors was to take an axe to them. He's long been one of the best finishers in Indian cricket, and was distinctly unlucky to have been out of the T20I squad for so long despite boasting world-class numbers during his most recent run in the side; but then again, where do you fit him into the XI?
If Karthik's other skill was part-time spin rather than keeping wicket, India would have no trouble answering that question. They would simply bat Rishabh Pant, Hardik and Karthik at Nos. 5, 6 and 7. As things stand, however, Karthik is a specialist finisher who is significantly less comfortable batting up the order, and he isn't the first-choice keeper. With Hardik not a guaranteed deliverer of four overs, Karthik is left competing with a second allrounder (Axar Patel in the current squad) for the No. 7 slot, which is a difficult contest to win.
If he can grab the chances he gets during the series against South Africa, however, Karthik could still make a major case to be picked as India's reserve keeper for the T20 World Cup.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo