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India in South Africa: Looking to drive home the bench strength | Cricket

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India in South Africa: Looking to drive home the bench strength | Cricket


In the post-Covid world, leading cricket nations have embraced the idea of overlapping series. Players get more opportunities to win international caps. Equally, the parallel franchise league calendar constantly tests the robustness of the talent pool.

India have played the most T20I cricket in the last three years, fielded the most players (54) and handed out the most debuts (27).(PTI)
India have played the most T20I cricket in the last three years, fielded the most players (54) and handed out the most debuts (27).(PTI)

Australian cricket did it in the 90s with Australia and Australia A competing in international quadrangular series – the two home teams even made the finals over England and Zimbabwe in the 1995 B&H World Series. Now, it’s India’s turn to flex their cricketing muscle. Even as drawing their white-ball programmes based on the year’s ICC event becomes a norm, leading nations like India manage to put together an altogether different, and more-than-competitive, squad for the other white-ball format to honour commitments and protect broadcast dollar.

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India have played the most T20I cricket in the last three years, fielded the most players (54) and handed out the most debuts (27). In ODIs, India are next only to West Indies in terms of most players used (46) and debutants (20). Ten days before the 2022 T20 World Cup, the Shikhar Dhawan-led ODI team played South Africa at home. This year, Ruturaj Gaikwad-led Indian T20 team won gold at the Asian games while the main team was preparing for the home ODI World Cup.

TESTING INDIA’S BENCH

The South Africa tour – it starts with the first T20I in Durban on Sunday – will be a manifestation of India’s bench strength. It will also be a real test on foreign soil. As many as 45 players will be travelling to South Africa over the next five weeks in their all-format tour, which includes an A tour involving two four-day matches and a three-day intra-squad match. This even as domestic cricket continues with a different set of players competing in the Vijay Hazare Trophy one-day tournament’s knockout rounds.

Even for BCCI’s broad-based domestic structure, putting together squads for the South Africa tour was no mean task. The ODI leg (December 17-21), sandwiched between the T20s and Tests, was not the series in focus, but needed attention. Only three players – Ruturaj Gaikwad, Shreyas Iyer and Mukesh Kumar – are in all three squads.

The other priority was to ensure that the Test team got adequate match simulation, in keeping with the recent practice of not playing a tour match against the opposition. “That’s how a three-day intra-squad match involving the main team and the India A players was set up,” said a BCCI official. There are 14 India A players who haven’t found a place in any of the senior squads there but get to stake a claim against South Africa A.

Ideally, A series played a few months or so before an away series would fit the definition of a shadow tour. Prithvi Shaw, Shubman Gill, Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari, Mohammed Siraj all broke into the Test team, benefiting from the A’ tours programme. But officials say that increasingly congested calendars make mutually beneficial A’ tours tough to schedule.

The selection criteria to earn a Test cap is the most rigorous. A dream Ranji season or two is not enough; Mumbai’s Sarfaraz Khan knows this. Topping up with performances in the Duleep Trophy, then for India A, the finishing school, is necessary. Yashasvi Jaiswal scored big runs in Duleep and A series, even as winning IPL powerplays brought him into the limelight. Sarfaraz could not do much in this year’s Duleep, is in the A team for his consistent Ranji showing.

Selection for shadow tours will see subjective judgement, but impact performances don’t go unnoticed. Karnataka pacer Vidhwath Kaverappa was rewarded for taking big hauls in the Duleep Trophy. Uttar Pradesh left-arm spinner Saurabh Kumar for getting wickets on every red-ball platform. There is the young crop of Pradosh Ranjan Paul, Dhruv Jurel, Pulkit Narang, Harshit Rana and Manav Suthar, selected for potential after good performances in the Emerging Asia Cup.

Leading Ranji wicket-taker Jalaj Saxena, 36, doesn’t make it. But the season’s top-scorer Mayank Agarwal, 32, might be wondering if he’s being considered too old or not young enough despite aggregating 990 runs.

T20 FILTERING

Still to win a T20 World Cup since the inaugural edition in 2007, India’s T20I selections become the most challenging. India’s domestic crop is the only one in the world that does not get to test itself in varied conditions in other global leagues.

What is clear is Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 performances are given limited weightage. The selectors prefer to wait for them to shine in IPL before handing India caps. Riyan Parag may have top-scored in Mushtaq Ali with 510 runs at a strike rate of 182.79, but his 78 runs in 7 IPL matches at a strike rate of 118.8 was seen as a poor season. The 22-year-old Rajasthan Royals all-rounder will need to do more on the stage that matters to push his case.

Tilak Varma, Rinku Singh, Jitesh Sharma and Ravi Bishnoi have taken the flight to South Africa for the series starting on Sunday after proving their worth against the best in the business in IPL.

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