Why India's T20 World Cup squad sends confusing signals

Royal Challengers Bengaluru's Virat Kohli plays a shot during the Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 eliminator cricket match between Royal Challengers Bengaluru and Rajasthan Royals at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on May 22, 2024. Image source, AFP
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As the highest IPL run-getter, Virat Kohli reaffirmed his status as the world's best all-format batsman

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Ranked No. 1, India enters the ninth T20 World Cup 2024 as favourites.

The tournament, which will be held in the US and West Indies over the next four weeks, sees India facing high expectations and intense scrutiny from fans and experts.

After overcoming heavy odds to win the inaugural World Cup in 2007, India have been unable to repeat the triumph since. Despite growing wealth, influence, and talent, major cricketing titles have remained frustratingly out of reach for Indian cricket.

In fact, India hasn’t won an International Cricket Council (ICC) title since the 2013 Champions Trophy. Three stellar captains – MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma - and two renowned chief coaches - Ravi Shastri and Rahul Dravid - have, in different combinations, delivered excellent results otherwise, but failed this test. Last year, India lost in the final of the World Test Championship and ODI World Cup, both times to Australia.

Can India break the jinx this time?

Since it began in 2008, the Indian Premier League (IPL) has been the bellwether tournament to assess form and influence selection of the Indian team for T20, sometimes even for 50-over ODI World Cups.

The IPL's intense competition and pressure test players' calibre and temperament. However, the Indian squad for the World Cup based on IPL 2024 sends confusing signals.

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Rohit Sharma's destructive opening is pivotal to India's success

For instance, no player in the squad featured in the IPL final.

Rinku Singh, who played for Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), is part of the travelling reserves, not in the main squad of 15. Shubman Gill, touted as the next ‘Big Thing’ in Indian cricket for two years, also finds himself relegated to the reserves.

The top IPL 2024 run-scorers after Virat Kohli - Ruturaj Gaikwad and Riyan Parag - are not even in the reserves. Notably, Gaikwad captained India in the Asian Games last year.

Harshal Patel and Varun Chakravarthy, top wicket-takers in the recent IPL and part of India's 2022 T20 World Cup team, have been overlooked.

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Jasprit Bumrah was the most feared bowler in IPL

The inclusion of several players based on their IPL 2024 form, alongside notable omissions, raises red flags against conventional selection logic.

The best Indian performers were Virat Kohli and Jasprit Bumrah.

Criticism of Kohli's strike-rate peaked mid-tournament, but he silenced doubters with superlative batting. As the highest run-getter, he reaffirmed his status as the world's best all-format batsman.

Though Bumrah did not bag the highest number of wickets (finishing third), he was nonetheless the most feared. Amazingly economical, conceding under seven runs per over, Bumrah's superb skills and wicket-taking ability at any stage made him a towering influence, despite his franchise finishing last. With his ODI World Cup success last year and a stellar Test series against England, Bumrah stands peerless among contemporary fast bowlers.

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Kuldeep Yadav (right) and Ravindra Jadeja (left) are key to India's spin bowling success

The only other player in this squad I see in the same category as Kohli and Bumrah is Rishabh Pant.

Not for his statistical achievements in IPL 2024, but for his remarkable and strong return to big-time cricket after a near-fatal injury that had kept him out of the game for almost 18 months. Pant's free-spirited, dazzling, and innovative batting, which has won many matches for India, re-emerged, promising well for the World Cup. A notch below is hard-hitting Shivam Dube who had a breakout IPL that compelled the attention of selectors.

From here, the Indian squad’s heft starts to wane.

Sanju Samson, Suryakumar Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal (making a comeback) performed well in IPL 2024, without being exceptional.

Of the others, Yashasvi Jaiswal, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel, and left-arm pace bowler Arshdeep Singh had only middling success. Mohammed Siraj, the main pace support to Bumrah, was a straggler for the most part.

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Rishabh Pant made a strong return to big-time cricket in IPL after a near-fatal injury

How the drop-in pitches imported from Australia play will be a crucial factor for all teams in the World Cup.

But with three left-arm spinners and a wobbly pace contingent (with newbies Khaleel Ahmed and Avesh Khan in the reserves), the bowling attack, at least on paper, seems short on variety and incisive edge.

The major concern revolves around the poor IPL form of captain Rohit Sharma and deputy Hardik Pandya. Their involvement in a captaincy transition controversy at Mumbai Indians raised doubts, impacting team cohesion.

Rohit's destructive batting as opener is pivotal to India's success, as evident in the ODI World Cup. Pandya's all-round prowess as a finisher, pace bowler, and fine fielder is equally crucial. Without Pandya at his best, the team's balance is compromised.

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India, captained by MS Dhoni, overcame heavy odds to win in the inaugural World Cup in 2007

Mind you, India’s selectors have largely succeeded in ticking all boxes, covering most contingencies.

The depth of talent in Indian cricket makes this possible, despite many star players in questionable form.

The IPL serves as a testing ground for Indian players and a melting pot for top T20 talent worldwide (excluding Pakistan). The Indian team will be running into several players who sizzled this IPL season, and are primed up to excel for their respective national teams.

Major contenders for the title include defending champions England, twice champions West Indies (with home advantage), and Australia, displaying a relentless pursuit of victory over the past year.

In the eight previous editions of the World Cup, six different countries have emerged as champions, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This underscores that reputation holds little significance in this format.

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Suryakumar Yadav's form will be key to India's batting success

Doughty teams like Afghanistan, as they showed in the ODI World Cup, can easily upset more experienced teams in white-ball cricket. Predicting a winner for this World Cup would not only be risky but outright foolish. All teams must perform at their peak.

India are placed in the same group with Pakistan in the league stage. The match between these two arch rivals on 9 June is billed as the "biggest-ever" in cricket history and expected to draw in global viewership in excess of two billion.

Neither team wants to lose. But India, who have had the better of such exchanges in ICC tournaments (ODI and T20) over the years, must set their sights beyond just winning this contest. Beating Pakistan will be just a stepping stone; true redemption lies in winning the World Cup.

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