Jawab milgye? Caribbean tour leaves India with more unanswered questions

Jawab milgye? Caribbean tour leaves India with more unanswered questions

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The leadership duo of Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma failed to impress on the Caribbean tour

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ANI

India’s all-format rendezvous of the Caribbean islands was advertised as one where the lingering doubts around the team’s setup would be comprehensively rebutted. However, one long month later, the questions have only been appended by further intense queries, courtesy of some odious experiments. 

The unrelenting modern cricket schedule meant that even before the World Test Championship Final ended, loud and dynamic promotional videos dripping with dramatic booming narration appeared across all media to hype up India’s first all-format tour of the Caribbean since 2019. In an unnecessarily caricatured tone, they declared “Sab jawaab milenge (all questions will be answered),” underlining the unusual significance of the otherwise innocuous-looking assignment, given it was against a West Indian side that had hit rock-bottom after missing out on World Cup qualification for the first time.

The two Tests kicked off a new WTC cycle for India and with it heralded a long-promised transition for the red-ball team. Contrastingly, the three-ODI series to follow marked the end of a four-year cycle given it was slated to be the last set of games the Men in Blue played before the World Cup’s squad submission deadline of September 5 set by the ICC. Even the five T20Is spread across the Caribbean islands and Florida to cap off the tour acquired importance due to the fact that these venues will host the next edition of World T20 in less than a year’s time. Thus, there were indeed burning questions that needed to be addressed in these 18 days of cricket packed in the space of a month, but how successful were the visitors in formulating their jawaabs?

The blowhorn for the Test transition was officially sounded with call-ups for the uncapped Ruturaj Gaikwad, Ishan Kishan, Yashaswi Jaiswal, and Mukesh Kumar in a relatively inexperienced squad. More importantly, 103 Test caps veteran Cheteshwar Pujara was finally given the axe after a prolonged drought, ending his decade-long stronghold of the number three position.

However, even amidst the bold steps forward, ambiguity prevailed in selection. While the selectors continued to turn a blind eye towards Sarfaraz Khan who averages 106 in first-class cricket since 2020, Ajinkya Rahane was renamed the vice-captain of the squad despite having featured in a solitary Test in 18 months. The 35-year-old was dropped in early 2022 and only managed to claw his way back for the WTC final on the back of a groundbreaking 2023 IPL season. Erratically, one decent performance was enough to convince selectors to name him deputy skipper for the Caribbean tour and the rashness of the move was immediately on display when Rahane managed scores of 3 and 8 in the two West Indies Tests. Rahane thus now stands at risk of being discarded from the team once again and deservingly so, only now it would come at the expense of the selection committee looking extremely silly.

[He has] just come back and straightway become vice-captain after 18 months, I don't understand. My only thing is that selection shouldn't be hot and cold. There has to be continuity and consistency  in selection.

Sourv Ganguly, former BCCI President

Moving on, the young Jaiswal was handed a debut and made good on his promise, scoring 171 in his first outing. However, his inclusion meant Shubman Gill was slotted in at number three where he failed to make a mark. The Punjab batter now averages a middling 32.20 after 18 Tests with just one score of 30-plus in his last 10 innings. Interestingly, Gill has never had a prolonged run in the middle-order in first-class cricket, having only played as an opener in Ranji Trophy. His only stint at the number three role came for India A and albeit a success, the small sample size makes for little reading. Gill’s demotion in the batting order came just when he seemed to be finding his ground in Tests as an opener, having scored his first two Test centuries in the last eight months. Looking at Gill as a long-term replacement for Rahane may have made more sense given that is where the 23-year-old played most of his junior cricket but the current solution arrived upon by the management seems like a worthless middle-ground.

As for the role of wicket-keeper batter, Ishan Kishan became the latest to debut in the role while Rishabh Pant continues his recovery. The Jharkhand batter was favoured over KS Bharat, who only had a five-match run after receiving his first cap in the Border Gavaskar Trophy earlier in the year before being dropped. While a case can be made that Kishan is a better batter or at the very least more in the mould of Pant with his counterattacking style of play, he only averages a couple of points higher than Bharat in first-class cricket. On the other hand, Bharat is clearly the better gloveman of the two and has a reputation as India’s best keeper on the domestic circuit. Nevertheless, it simply remains a game of musical chairs with neither having much future in Tests once Pant returns. However, the decision to deny Bharat crucial game time could backfire if Pant fails to recover in time for the five-match series against England in January, given Kishan does not seem equipped enough to keep against Ashwin and Jadeja on Indian rank-turners.

While the question marks in Tests were still acceptable given it was the beginning of a transition, the team could ill afford failure to find answers in ODIs considering the World Cup was just two months away. It is true that the Men in Blue have been unfortunate with injuries but it shouldn’t be an excuse for a team with such depth of talent. The side’s biggest debacle came in the first ODI itself when after bundling the hosts for a paltry 114, they chose to hold back Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli with the former eventually coming in to bat at number seven. If the visitors wanted to experiment, they should have rested the two senior pros as they rightly did in the ensuing ODIs. To have a Shardul Thakur bat at six was a clear case of disrespect against a Test-playing nation, especially in their own backyard, and is bound to come back to bite India should favourable circumstances arise in the near future.

Additionally, Ishan Kishan opened the batting alongside Shubman Gill in all three matches, despite the latter pretty much cast in stone alongside skipper Rohit Sharma as openers for the World Cup. India are still without replacements for Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul at four and five meaning this was the team’s chance to experiment with Kishan down the order but it was not to be. It made even less sense to play Ruturaj Gaikwad in the decider and then not even open the batting with him, ensuring it went down as a crucial wasted opportunity in the last match before announcing the World Cup squad.

The side also persisted with Suryakumar Yadav who batted at six in the final two ODIs after absurdly being sent at three in the opening encounter. Regardless, the struggles of T20I’s numero uno continued as he tallied 78 runs in three innings, with a high score of 35. Unfortunately, the dependency on SKY meant the team had Hardik Pandya batting at an unsavoury high position of five to further his transition as an anchor. It was no surprise that the all-rounder only managed to get going in the third ODI where he came in to bat with just 18 overs to go. Similarly, Axar Patel inexplicably batted at number four in his solitary appearance in the series and unsurprisingly came up short. Such random decisions have thus made sure that India are now not only without proper middle-order options but their all-rounders also lack recent match practice in the crucial role of designated finishers. For a team already lacking big hitters lower down the order, that is simply disastrous.

Lastly, Yuzvendra Chahal was not included in the lineup for any of the three ODIs despite the pitches being extremely slow and on occasion proper rank-turners. The leg-spinner has shockingly played just two ODIs in 2023 heading into a World Cup in India despite being at the top of his game, as was on display in the IPL and T20Is. While the veteran’s experience and possible game time in the upcoming Asia Cup may help him press past the hurdle of lacking game time, it is certainly not optimal preparation for a prestigious marquee event. 

The tour was also India’s first assignment in the shortest format after the conclusion of the IPL’s latest season and a chance to test new combinations with the continued absence of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. With the World T20 confirmed to have an early start in June, the Men in Blue had the golden opportunity to experiment in both Caribbean islands and the USA but again failed to make the most of the opportunity.

The series firstly confirmed the transition of Hardik Pandya as an anchor in T20 cricket, a role he has been playing for Gujarat Titans for the past two years. However, the very idea behind fielding youngsters in T20s has been to adopt a more attacking approach underlined by the likes of Suryakumar Yadav and Tilak Varma. Pandya scored at a strike rate of 110 across the five games, including an 18-ball 14 in the fifth T20I which essentially kept India from achieving a par score and resulting in their first bilateral T20I series loss since 2021. Thus, despite being one of the acclaimed power hitters in the international setup and previously excelling in a role where there is a severe dearth in the country, this shift in duties appeared to be a clear case of franchise duties prevailing over national priorities.

Meanwhile, the Sanju Samson saga continued, as the batter was once again pushed down the order – this time to accommodate debutant Tilak. If the latter keeps up the performances he showed during the series in the near future, it more or less seems to ring the death knell on what could have been a promising career for Samson. 

In the end, the T20s only ended up as a prime example of how not to experiment. Several question marks were raised over India’s combination throughout as they essentially fielded four number 11s in each game. Yet, even when the approach clearly proved to be sub-optimal, the team stuck with their guns instead of being bold and trying new combinations in what was labelled by the skipper as an experimental series.

In fact, the endeavour also went a long way in highlighting Pandya’s shortcomings as a captain. The all-rounder unabashedly proclaimed he did not believe in preplanned bowling programmes but rather trusted his instincts. As a result, Yuzvendra Chahal, coming on the back of a brilliant IPL season, did not bowl his complete quote of overs in two of the five games. Things came to a head in the second T20I when Pandya handed the ball to Mukesh Kumar in the 19th over despite Chahal flipping the game around with three wickets in the 16th over. Kumar went on to concede 14 runs and the Windies got home with seven balls to spare.

It is what I feel at the moment, I don't plan much. If I see a situation, whatever my gut says I follow

Hardik Pandya on his team's bowling strategy

All in all, the month-long tour ended up raising more questions than providing answers for Indian cricket. The white-ball series were especially crucial in underlining the lack of cohesive long-term planning and their alignment with the emerging trends of the sport, a problem that has plagued the team for years now. The selectors continue to remain mum about their decisions instead of providing forthright explanations about their thought processes, be it the dropping of Cheteshwar Pujara from Tests or the exclusion of Rohit and Kohli from T20Is. While many factors have played a role in India’s decade-long trophy drought, the Caribbean tour offered a glimpse of the shortcomings that have formed the core of such continuous failure. 

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