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Feature

Takeaways from India's squads for SA: Axar's future, Prasidh's height factor, and a new role for Rahul?

And by resting Rohit and Kohli from the white-ball leg, have the selectors deferred a big decision?

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
30-Nov-2023
KL Rahul is not in the T20I squad but could find himself keeping wickets for the first time in Test cricket  •  ICC/Getty Images

KL Rahul is not in the T20I squad but could find himself keeping wickets for the first time in Test cricket  •  ICC/Getty Images

India will be sending a possible 45 players to South Africa in December for a tour that contains eight internationals, two four-day India A matches against South Africa A and a three-day match between India and India A as part of the preparations for the two-Test series against South Africa. They have also gone back to not holding a press conference to give the fans some insight into the direction the team is headed in. That leaves us trying to make sense of the selections without inputs from those who made the decisions. Here are some of the takeaways from the many squads announced late Thursday night.
Most big calls deferred but has one been made?
The real focus right now is on the direction the T20I side will take with just six matches to be played from the start of the South Africa series till the World Cup in June. The selectors had avoided the thorniest topic from the 2022 T20 World Cup till now by "resting" Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli for T20Is in order for them to focus on the other two formats. To a lesser extent, KL Rahul fell in the same bracket.
You can hardly be faulted if you thought the selectors had moved on from the old guard that anchored the innings before it set sail, but it is not so straightforward. Hardik Pandya is injured with no timeline on his return. Rohit has shown he has thrown away the anchor. And a side needs a captain. If Rohit seems the straightforward choice to you, please put yourselves in the selectors' shoes and try to justify to emotional fans the retention of Rohit but not of Kohli.
However, by asking to be rested, the two stalwarts of Indian batting have left this call for another day. But by not selecting Rahul for the T20I leg of the South Africa tour, the selection committee might just have sent a strong message: there is no place for your methods in this new-age top order, and if you want to bat in the middle order, you might have to show us the willingness to do so with the right intent.
Having said all that, don't rule out one or two or all three of them making the T20 World Cup squad.
More room to test youngsters
In an ideal world, India would have been figuring out whether Jitesh Sharma, the explosive wicketkeeper-batter in the IPL and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, is ready for the big time during the Australia series at home. But Rahul Dravid and Suryakumar Yadav can try him against a hopefully first-choice South Africa XI on the bouncier tracks there. It will also be a test for Yashasvi Jaiswal and Rinku Singh, who have emerged as frontrunners for the first XI.
T20I bowling looks thin
Blame it on the lack of multi-dimensional players, but India will likely struggle to manage all three of the following in an XI: a designated finisher in Rinku, a swing bowler, a hit-the-deck bowler. As things stand, if India play Ravindra Jadeja at No. 7, they will have to forego Rinku; if they play Rinku as a finisher and Jadeja at No. 8, they will have to sacrifice a seamer.
Even given that scarcity, India seem to have further restricted themselves by not picking Mohsin Khan, who has shown he can swing the new ball, hit the deck, and has the temperament to bowl difficult overs. However, it is possible he is not fully fit.
As things stand, though, India are heavily reliant on Hardik bowling his overs as the third seamer if they are to deepen their batting order by playing Rinku at No. 7 and Jadeja at 8.
End of the road for Axar Patel?
You would hope not. He lost out to Jadeja in the ODI line-up because ODIs resemble Test cricket more than they do T20s. In T20s, though, Axar can claim to be a batter better able to maximise favourable match-ups than Jadeja, who almost needs to be hidden away from spinners. Axar will hope he will get a chance to present his case in the future after being omitted from the T20I squad for the South Africa tour. As of now, it might appear that Jadeja is in pole position and might need to perform badly to miss out on the World Cup.
Rahul in the Test middle order?
Rahul has only ever started one first-class match as a designated wicketkeeper. And yet, the BCCI release announcing the squads has him marked as a wicketkeeper in Tests. Now, you wouldn't expect him to keep and then go straight out to open in Test cricket, especially when he is not used to doing the former at all. But this could be a revival of sorts for Rahul if he can make a middle-order slot his own, for which he might be competing with either Ishan Kishan as wicketkeeper or Shreyas Iyer as a specialist batter.
Bumrah the Test bowler is back
When Jasprit Bumrah was diagnosed with a stress reaction of the back, which needed surgery, one feared for his Test career, but his selection in the squad for the Tests is great news for fans of fast bowling as he is too good a bowler to be lost to Test cricket. Surely the medical team is confident Bumrah is ready once again to take on the rigours of Test cricket?
Also India have made it a point to include a tall, hit-the-deck fast bowler in the Test squad after that height seemed to have been the difference between the two attacks when India toured South Africa last and lost 2-1. Prasidh Krishna might just be the third quick for India to capitalise on the indentations South African pitches tend to develop as Tests wear on.
The ODI squad
Like T20Is were for the last year or so, ODIs are likely to be on the backburner until the T20 World Cup in June. This is where India will experiment with their ideas: Rahul as captain, Sanju Samson as middle-order batter, and the rehabilitation of Yuzvendra Chahal.

Sidharth Monga is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo