What interconnects Prithvi Shaw, Manish Pandey, Sanju Samson, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav and Navdeep Saini?
Indeed, all of them are holders of lucrative IPL contracts. And yes, these seven players have all been named in India’s squad to tour Sri Lanka and are part of the core that constitutes the country’s enviable squad depth. But the commonality they share extends beyond these simple facts. What really connects them is that they all are individuals currently in search of redemption, in desperate need of one more chance to prove their credentials.
Prior to the team’s departure to Sri Lanka, stand-in coach Rahul Dravid stressed how, above everything else, the touring party’s primary goal should be to win games of cricket; to sweep both the ODIs and T20Is. ‘Second-string’ Indian sides in the past have been swept aside by relatively weak hosts - such as India’s tour of Zimbabwe in 2010, when the Suresh Raina-led Indian side lost a tri-series to Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka - so Dravid very well understands that complacency could potentially prove to be fatal.
Yet while results, undoubtedly, need to be prioritized, it is hard not to look at this tour and think that, for India, it needs to be all about individuals. For while a ‘W’ next to the team’s name might look good to the eye, what will really benefit the side, in the long run, is if individuals walk out on the other side of this tour transformed.
India’s position in the ODI Super League table being inconsequential, coupled with the fact that a host of first-team T20I players are missing, means that there is, really, nothing more than pride at stake. But how these six aforementioned individuals fare in the series could very well have a direct impact on the team’s fortunes in white-ball cricket in the months to follow.
Some are down on confidence, some have been isolated and neglected and others are on the verge of being overlooked. Yet for all, the Sri Lanka series serves as a road to redemption; a golden opportunity to get their career back on track.
Shawshank Redemption: The story of Prithvi
Given the fact that he’s just 21, it would be an overstatement to claim that the forthcoming Sri Lanka series could be a ‘make or break’ tour for Prithvi Shaw. But, should he do well, take off and go on to accomplish great things in the years to follow, there is every reason that Shaw might look back on this tour as the turning point of his career. As things stand, Shaw’s career is at the crossroads. Following a tumultuous, roller-coaster 24-month period at the end of which his career plummeted to its nether, Shaw has built up his confidence through record-breaking showings in the domestic circuit and is (or was, prior to the IPL’s suspension) batting as well as he ever has.
All that’s left for him to complete his redemption is to stamp his authority at the international level once again, and he arguably will not get a better chance to do so than against a confidence-less Lankan side in relatively familiar conditions. The feeling of ‘belonging’, in national colours, has evaded him for three years, but that could be put to bed within the next fortnight.
Manish Pandey and the tragedy of being perpetually ignored
The forever-friendzoned cricketer of India, Manish Pandey is someone who has, time and again, been done dirty by the management. Always the first to be jettisoned and the last to be picked, Pandey has seldom been respected by the selectors. Despite being an ODI-batsman by nature, T20s were where they thrust him into, and when they eventually did pick him in ODIs, they often deserted him as soon as they had a newer, more lavish toy at their disposal. Pandey’s T20I career looks all but over, but the three-match ODI series could prove to be a ray of hope for the 31-year-old to keep himself in the ODI mix.
By some distance, the most experienced specialist middle-order batsman in the squad, Pandey, perhaps for the first time in his international career, could get a continuous run of games at the position he excels in, in the Top 4. Still, someone who boasts an impressive 50-over record for the country, Pandey, even in the absence of Shreyas Iyer, has been overlooked of late due to the management’s penchant for free-stroking players, but with a strong showing, the Karnataka skipper could end up sending a timely message that he is far from the ‘finished’ cricketer they think he is.
Sanju Samson: Forever the ‘next big thing’
That Sanju Samson has represented the country only seven times - all in the shortest format - might come as a shock to many, but the excruciatingly low number is representative of the fact that his career has refused to take off. It did threaten to take off once again, last year after he finally broke into the T20I set-up and played each of the three matches against Australia, but the selectors snubbing him for the England T20Is brought it back to square one.
Whether the selectors were justified in dropping Samson for the England T20Is is a different conversation altogether, but lying in front of him is a golden opportunity to leave a mark at the highest level in the sport. Again, being one of the more experienced members in the squad means that Samson is set to play all six matches, and, unlike Shaw, the forthcoming SL tour looks set to be a make or break moment for Samson, though he is only 26.
A string of continuous games against a weak unit in a low-stakes encounter - the newly-crowned Rajasthan Royals skipper will never get a better chance at redeeming himself and perhaps throwing his name in the mix for the World Cup.
Yuzvendra Chahal and the never-ending rotten run of form
“My form hasn't dipped. It's just a matter of a couple of matches,” said Chahal in the aftermath of the England series in which he got slaughtered. Such was the damage the English batters inflicted on Chahal that he not only got dropped mid-way through the T20Is but also was overlooked for the ODIs. Some may claim that he was ‘rested’ for the 50-over games but his recent matches in the format - 0/71 and 1/89, both in Sydney - suggest that he was indeed dropped.
Given Chahal was far from his best even in the IPL where he usually excels, the Sri Lanka series couldn’t arguably come at a better time for the leg-spinner. Chahal is in desperate need of rediscovering his mojo, and bowling against a weak and low-on-confidence Lankan line-up on turning tracks would be his best bet to bowl himself into some sort of rhythm.
Chahal’s rotten run of form has lasted for over 18 months, but with the WT20 three months away, lying in front of the leggie is an opportunity to turn the tables.
Kuldeep Yadav and the last chance to maintain relevance
The Kuldeep Yadav of 2018 was among the top-two limited-overs spinners in the world, certainly India’s best, and was earmarked for greatness. Fast forward three years, the Kuldeep Yadav of 2021 is ‘just another cricketer’ living on past reputation, a barely relevant, dispensable asset hanging by a thread for survival. Such is the extent to which Kuldeep has fallen that he is currently the fifth-choice spinner for his IPL franchise, KKR, certain to get released for the mega auction.
In many ways, Kuldeep can consider himself lucky to have gotten picked for the Sri Lanka tour, after being stripped of his dignity by Ben Stokes, but it goes without saying that this does look like his last chance to impress - in the near future, at least. And you wonder that, like Chahal, Kuldeep wouldn’t get a better opportunity to soar back into form.
The prospect of Kuldeep making the WT20 squad looks unlikely, but he can, certainly, pick himself up and turn his career around for the better through a strong showing versus the Lankans.
Navdeep Saini: The ex-darling who has now turned into a running meme
It took all of two matches for a billion fans in the country to turn on Navdeep Saini. Not too long ago hailed as the enforcer that completed the limited-overs pace attack, Saini saw himself being branded the ‘worst and the most overrated pacer in the country’ after twin horror showings at the SCG, where he registered combined figures of 1/153 off 17 overs. Astonishingly Saini has, to date, not played white-ball cricket for the country post the SCG debacle, and has seen his place be taken by Prasidh Krishna who, erm, is not too different a bowler.
Saini being the only out-and-out seamer in the squad means that he will, at the very least, play the entirety of the ODI series, and the three games will provide him with the opportunity to redeem himself. As has been evident over the past 18 months, the Sri Lankan batsmen have an inherent weakness against express pace bowling, and there is no better bowler than Saini who can exploit the same. The dearth of death bowlers in the squad also means that there will be an avenue for Saini to showcase his death-bowling skills, and he will go a long way by putting up a good, all-round showing in the series.
Saini can consider the tour a success if his “beamer compilations” on Twitter get replaced by yorker compilations.