Ten Days Before the Big Clash: What Are India’s First-Choice Bowling Plans

As always, when team India travels overseas, there is certain intrigue around its preparations. This past week, the squad was camped in Perth for its weeklong acclimatisation with the Australian conditions. And of course, there were two practice matches scheduled as well.

Practice or warm-up games are a strange phenomenon for team India. They are not given much credence, and this line of thinking has been prevalent since the time of MS Dhoni and coach Duncan Fletcher. They created an atmosphere wherein more credence was laid upon net sessions, throw downs from coaches/specialists, and intra-team contests. First-Class games as preparation have become a rarity since, and this mode of preparation is prevalent even today.

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And so, Virat Kohli skipped both practice games against Western Australia, instead choosing for match-wicket practice. KL Rahul didn’t bat in the first game, Rohit Sharma and Suryakumar Yadav didn’t bat in the second game. Rishabh Pant, who is not expected to feature in India’s first choice playing eleven during this upcoming T20 World Cup, opened in both practice matches. Go figure!

This isn’t about India’s batting though. Going into this T20 World Cup, their key strength – and hope – is batting prowess. Yes, there are doubts after last year’s embarrassment. Yes, there is an unstated imbalance about a complete right-handed batting line-up. Even so, those are big names and India’s claim for a second T20 World Cup title rests on their shoulders.

This, instead, is about that bowling line-up, which still isn’t ready. The tournament’s qualifying round begins on Sunday, and India’s first game is precisely ten days away (at the time of writing), and yet, there is no 15th member of the squad still. It is an incomplete squad, wherein Jasprit Bumrah’s replacement is still missing.

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Sure, you cannot really replace Bumrah’s value in T20 cricket. But a timely effort to find an alternative could have been fruitful in the grander scheme of things. Yes, Mohammed Shami got Covid-19 and his late recovery further hampered plans. The question here is if he really is the answer to this problem. Mind you, Shami hasn’t played T20Is since the embarrassing exit from the 2021 World Cup.

Then, there is Mohammed Siraj, who until recently was playing county cricket in England. Shami’s illness meant he was rushed back into India’s white-ball plans and took a while to get going. You want to ask herein, why Umesh Yadav isn’t in consideration? After all, he was the first replacement for Shami, an open admission from the team management that they forgot pace as a potent weapon in Australia.

Why isn’t he in contention still?

Further, there is the curious case of Shardul Thakur. He was not in the original list of reserves. Deepak Chahar’s back injury propelled him into India’s plans for touring Down Under, and now he is on the bench as backup for Hardik Pandya. It needs to be recalled here that Pandya missed the South Africa T20I series to undergo conditioning work at the NCA. Is there something the team management isn’t saying out loud?

You could wonder the same when Arshdeep Singh missed one game due to a worrisome back issue. It is almost as if India’s front-line T20I bowlers are all walking on one leg, or not walking at all. In essence, this is gross mismanagement from the selectors. Even so, while India is performing complex mathematics to find five fit fast bowlers for this World Cup, there are no credible answers forthcoming from the selectors.

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As such, the question to ask at this juncture is a simple one. What seems to be India’s first-choice bowling plan for the tournament opener against Pakistan?

Ten days away from the game, as things stand, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Arshdeep Singh seem to be first-choice bowlers. Both bowled with the new ball in these two practice games, and more pertinently, didn’t bowl their full quota of overs. Comparing notes with India’s previous preparatory camps and/or practice games, it is quite an indicator of the management’s thinking – a right/left combination to start things off, with Hardik Pandya also helping out in the powerplay.

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This though seems to be just the starting point. Much will be decided from the two warm-up games between Australia and New Zealand as well. At this point, Shami is the frontline choice to replace Bumrah. And if he is eventually drafted into the squad, he will definitely share the new ball as well as bowl most of his overs in the powerplay or the first half of the innings. That relegates Arshdeep to the middle and death overs.

That leaves Harshal Patel and the composition of India’s spin attack. While R Ashwin is getting good game time off late, Yuzvendra Chahal and Axar Patel should still be the starting spin attack. Patel’s inclusion depends on Shami’s fitness as also how well Arshdeep performs his roles in the initial stages of the World Cup. Beyond that, it is a matter of control, something India hasn’t ascertained on opposition batsmen lately.

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It was something seen against South Africa, as David Miller and Rilee Rossouw smacked hundreds in the final two games. More of this was seen against Western Australia XI. In the first practice game, they were reduced to 12-4 in 2.4 overs and yet India conceded 133 in 17.1 overs at 7.78 per over. In the second practice game, the hosts started well again, scoring at almost 8 per over before Ashwin struck late.

This lack of control compounded issues in the second game when the chase simply didn’t kick off. Losing to Western Australia XI, even in a practice game, should ring alarm bells. Anything else is just plain complacency, or worse, carelessness.

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