Every IPL has been something of an audition for cricketers looking to play for India, and given the national selectors a stage to gauge their talents. The 2022 edition is no different. It has thrown up several names for the selectors to consider as they zero in on a pool of players from which the final 15 will be picked for the T20 World Cup in Australia in October-November this year.
India have around 15 T20Is scheduled between June and the T20 World Cup. There are several roles to finalise, but also, in a happy headache for the selectors, several contenders for each of these roles. ESPNcricinfo takes an in-depth look at the roles and the potential contenders - old and new - before listing our first-choice 15.
One of the key requirements of a T20 opener is the ability to maximise the powerplay. This is crucial for various reasons: conditions could get tougher for run-scoring later in the innings, and teams often try to slip in a few overs from a weaker bowler up front if the batters are conservative. Not to mention, the powerplay enforcer is critical to taking advantage of fielding restrictions to set a strong foundation and/or bring the asking rate down in a jiffy.
India's incumbent first-choice openers - Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul - both bat similarly in the powerplay. Across the last three IPLs, Rohit strikes at 127 while Rahul goes at only 114 in the first six. Ruturaj Gaikwad and Shikhar Dhawan also pace their innings in a similar manner. However the game has evolved to require more, and the team cannot afford the predictability of two players with similar approaches opening. Enter the powerplay enforcer, and Prithvi Shaw is the frontrunner for this role. No Indian batter other than Shaw (strike rate 155) has scored at over 135 in the first six over the last three years. On average, he scores 19 off 12 balls in the powerplay. Ishan Kishan and Yashasvi Jaiswal are not at the same level as Shaw yet, but they are batters who could be groomed for this role. The fact that they bat left-handed is an added advantage.
Having a powerplay enforcer comes with the amplified risk of losing an early wicket. To balance that out, you might look to go with someone who can do a repair job when needed. Batters like Rohit, Rahul, Virat Kohli, Dhawan, Gaikwad and Shreyas Iyer suit the role of crisis men; they look to bat deep, generally slowly increasing their strike rate. The inherent risk here is getting stuck at a slow tempo and not allowing the power-hitters that follow enough deliveries to do their thing.
In the middle overs, Kohli and Iyer strike at 114 and 126 respectively, while Rohit and Rahul go at 132 and 138. If we are to dig deeper and look at spin, which usually constitutes a major chunk of the middle overs, the data is more revealing. Kohli strikes at 105, Rahul at 117, Iyer at 120 and Rohit at 127.
Given that most of these batters play multiple formats for India, it is perhaps difficult for them to train specifically for a more attacking role in the middle overs. Keeping this in mind, if we go with the insurance of an anchor or two in the top four, who can take on the role of attacking through the middle overs when needed?
In the middle overs an ideal candidate has the ability to score boundaries against both pace and spin with the field spread. The aim is to reduce dot balls. In the last three years of T20 cricket, there are four Indian players who have scored at rates of over 130 against both pace and spin in the middle overs: Suryakumar Yadav, Sanju Samson, Rahul Tripathi and Deepak Hooda. At least two of these ideally need to be regulars in the middle order. They are busy players who constantly look to take the bowling on.
Nos. 5-7 require power-hitters who have the ability to tee off from the first ball they face. The likes of Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell have looked to perform this role for more than a decade - and they still fail at it more often than they succeed. The point of entry for these batters ideally depends on the number of balls remaining in the innings. The No. 5 batter sometimes comes in slightly earlier, but Nos. 6 and 7 should ideally come in after the 14th over and tee off immediately.
One of the metrics used to measure the effectiveness of a batter at these slots is their strike rate in the first five/ten balls they face. Among Indian batters, Dinesh Karthik, Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja are the best by this metric, striking at around 150 to start innings over the past two IPL seasons. Since Rishabh Pant bats up the order for his franchise, it is unfair to judge him by the same metric and the numbers would not be in his favour, but it is important that he is assigned this role in the Indian team; he has the ability to attack from the outset. His left-handedness offers additional flexibility in tackling skewed ground dimensions and wristspinners.
The ideal spin combination for a team is to have a pair whose stock deliveries turn in the opposite direction. Also, one should primarily be a wicket-taker, while the other should consistently offer economy. That helps build bowling partnerships, which are so crucial to a team's success. Typically, a fingerspinner and a wristspinner tend to form such a combination. At present, R Ashwin and Yuzvendra Chahal for Rajasthan Royals, and Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav for Delhi Capitals are good examples of this. While Ashwin, Washington Sundar and Axar control the flow of runs, the likes of Chahal, Kuldeep and Ravi Bishnoi are wicket-takers.
The aim in this phase is to pick up early wickets, and extract any seam/swing that is available. Ideally the bowler sends down three overs at the start of the innings.
There are obvious contenders for this role based on form and consistency. Since IPL 2018, no bowler has taken more powerplay wickets than Deepak Chahar, while no bowler has taken more wickets in the powerplay in all IPL cricket than Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
However, if there isn't much swing available, then Mohammed Shami is a better choice in the powerplay.
Chahar, with his added batting ability, could be the front-runner for this role. Jasprit Bumrah could do the job too, but might well be reserved for the next role.
Similar to the batter coming in in the last few overs of a T20 innings, the art of finishing the innings with the ball is a unique and specialised skill. The ability to bowl several variations and execute the yorker repeatedly - to different styles of batters and in various conditions - are the main criteria for this role. While Bumrah is easily the best at it, Harshal Patel and Arshdeep Singh are not too far behind. Only Bumrah has bowled more yorkers than Arshdeep with one league match left in IPL 2022, but Arshdeep's economy at the death is the best in the competition so far. Arshdeep also gives the attack the left-arm variation.
Speed is useful in certain conditions and against specific oppositions. These bowlers can bowl extremely fast in the middle overs, even - or especially - when conditions are not necessarily favourable for seam and swing. Accuracy is key, of course. While not every team has this luxury, most teams are looking to add one such bowler to their squad. England's Mark Wood and New Zealand's Lockie Ferguson are examples. India can groom any of the contenders listed above for the role.
Finally, players who have multiple skillsets are an asset in any line-up. A bowler who lengthens the batting line-up might be picked over a bowler who might be marginally better at his primary skill but isn't handy with the bat.
A wicketkeeper who is also a powerplay enforcer or a finisher, or a spin/pace-bowling allrounder are examples of players who offer options to the captain. The squad should ideally have at least four multi-dimensional players from the contenders listed above.
ESPNcricinfo's first-choice India 15
Gaurav Sundararaman is a senior stats analyst at ESPNcricinfo