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Feature

New opening partner for Rohit and lower-order depth among key areas for India to address

With Siraj leading the pace attack, India will also be on the lookout for a left-arm seamer, but who will make the XI?

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
14-Feb-2022
Will Ishan Kishan and Rohit Sharma open the innings together?  •  BCCI

Will Ishan Kishan and Rohit Sharma open the innings together?  •  BCCI

After a one-sided ODI series that ended with India winning 3-0 and the two-day IPL auction, where 10 players from the team landed massive pay days, the focus shifts to the three-match T20I series beginning February 16 at Eden Gardens. West Indies are coming off a thrilling 3-2 series win at home over England and coach Phil Simmons believes they are "a little bit further ahead with our batting assessments in T20s than in ODIs" and could pose a bigger challenge.
As India begin to train in Kolkata, all eyes will be on their team combination and style of play, aspects that have come in for sharp scrutiny since their group-stage ouster from the T20 World Cup in the UAE last October-November. India took baby steps in bouncing back to beat New Zealand 3-0 at home immediately in the aftermath of the World Cup disappointment but have a few talking points.
Opening options
KL Rahul has been ruled out because of a left hamstring strain. That means Rohit Sharma, the captain, will have a new opening partner. Most likely, this could be a tussle between Ishan Kishan, the most expensive Indian buy at the auction, and Ruturaj Gaikwad, who has made a name for himself in T20s through his exploits for Chennai Super Kings in the IPL. Kishan, a clean stroke-maker, also offers the team management the flexibility of keeping wickets. This could allow them to consider resting Rishabh Pant, given India play Sri Lanka in three T20Is followed by two Tests on the bounce with little downtime.
If India are looking left-field option - it may not seem so for Kolkata Knight Riders - they could consider Venkatesh Iyer, the allrounder. Venkatesh, who made his debut in the New Zealand series, has had all his IPL success at the top. This was key to the Knight Riders' stirring run to the final in 2021. The team's struggle to find a combination up top in the first half of the tournament got them to consider Iyer for the UAE leg. He finished it with 320 runs at an average of 40 and a strike rate of 125; only Gaikwad (407) scored more runs in this period. With India constantly on the lookout for bowling contributions from the top six, Iyer could tick that box, too.
Lower-order batting depth
If Venkatesh is used at six, India will have to possibly decide between one of Suryakumar Yadav or Shreyas Iyer for the middle-order spot. The only way both Suryakumar and Shreyas make the XI is if Pant rests.
The presence of Shardul Thakur, Deepak Chahar and Harshal Patel lends formidable lower-order depth. Thakur and Chahar have been batting aplenty in the nets, apart from honing their primary skill of being swing bowlers. Harshal is no mug either, having taken up batting in a big way since 2018. In 2019-20, he was Haryana's highest run-scorer in the T20 competition as an opener, making 374 runs in 12 innings at a strike rate of 165.48. He provided a peek of his batting improvements in his only outing for India in November, when he made a polished 11-ball 18 along with Chahar as the pair revived India from 140 for 6 to a match-winning 184 for 7.
For now, all indications are it could be a toss-up between Thakur and Chahar for one spot, given how similar they are in terms of their primary skill sets. "Both of them are batting well," batting coach Vikram Rathour said. "The reason for that is both of them work really hard on their batting. It's not now but from the the past few years they've been working hard on their batting and now you can see the results. So, it's really good to have two allrounders.
"It gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of what kind of team we want to play with. It's good to see that competition happening in the team as well. They'll be competing, and they are batting well. Both of them are bowling well as well, it gives us a lot of flexibility as a team."
Washington didn't train two days prior to the series opener. The BCCI later confirmed that a hamstring strain had ruled him out of the T20I series, and that Kuldeep Yadav would replace him in India's squad.
Siraj the leader of the pace attack
With Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami resting, Mohammed Siraj becomes the automatic leader of the pace attack, with a number of options - as mentioned above - forming a line-up India will be reasonably happy with. In the spin department, they have got Yuzvendra Chahal's bankability and Ravi Bishnoi's quick leg breaks to choose from. They have also called upon Kuldeep Yadav and Harpreet Brar into the squad as net bowlers. Like Deepak Hooda, Brar is also seen as handy lower-order batting option to go with his left-arm spin.
The team continues to remain on the lookout for a left-arm pacer. T Natarajan has battled form and injuries lately and is on his way back up to top-flight cricket, having last played for India on the tour of Australia in January last year. India last fielded a left-arm seamer in a T20I in Sri Lanka when they turned to Saurashtra's Chetan Sakariya in what was a second-string squad. Natarajan brings with him a good yorker and accuracy, Sakariya prides himself on swinging the new ball and delivering excellent slower variations, including a potent back-of-the-hand one.
The latest left-arm pacer who has made his way into the extended squad is Uttar Pradesh's Yash Dayal, who brings with him raw pace. Dayal was part of the net bowling contingent for the ODIs before leaving to join his state side for the upcoming Ranji Trophy. Then there is the in-form Jaydev Unadkat, who last played T20Is in 2018, and Khaleel Ahmed, who has fallen off the radar alarmingly. Both bowlers continued to be in high-demand tough, with Mumbai Indians and Delhi Capitals overcoming a bidding war to secure their services.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo