India and the No. 4 piece of the World Cup squad puzzle

India and the No. 4 piece of the World Cup squad puzzle

The biggest buzz in India right now is over the ongoing general elections but, for a few hours on Monday, cricket fans will be focused on selection – the selection of India’s World Cup squad, which will be announced on Monday afternoon. Here’s your guide to the key questions facing the five-man selection committee, led by former India wicketkeeper MSK Prasad.

First, who are the certain picks?
There’s no debate over 11 of the 15-man squad. Based on a combination of consistent selection over an extended period, form, seniority and skillsets, the certs are captain Virat Kohli and (in no particular order): Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, MS Dhoni (wicketkeeper), Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami.

So the debate is about the remaining four places?
Yes. And the four are likely to be picked from a pack of six players comprising Ambati Rayudu, KL Rahul, Dinesh Karthik, Rishabh Pant, Vijay Shankar and Ravindra Jadeja.

So the best four players will be picked?
Well, that’s the simple interpretation. But Prasad and Kohli have (separately) stressed that the selectors and the team management are clear about the combinations and it is just the one spot that needs to be filled: the No. 4 slot. And in the past six months more than one contender has emerged.

Wait, wasn’t Kohli clear about Rayudu being their chosen No. 4?
Yes. Last October, a month after Rayudu made a strong impression in the Asia Cup (where he batted No.3), Kohli said the Hyderabad batsman was the “right” choice for the No. 4 slot. Rayudu had returned to the Indian dressing room after a successful IPL last year where he had piloted Chennai Super Kings’ run to the title as an opening batsman. Since his return, India have played 24 ODIs, with Rayudu missing three matches.

So Rayudu should be the No. 4?
True. However, a couple of statements from Kohli and his deputy Rohit Sharma earlier this year during the ODI series in Australia and New Zealand revealed the state of confusion in the Indian dressing room, and reopened the No. 4 debate.

After the defeat in the first ODI in Sydney, where Dhoni scored 51 off 96 balls – his first fifty since December 2017 – at No. 5, Rohit said the No. 4 slot was ideal for India’s seniormost player, but that was his personal opinion. Then, mid-way through the New Zealand series, Kohli said India were looking to “solidify” the No. 4 position.

Why has Rayudu’s position become vulnerable?
In the 20 innings, he has played since the start of Asia Cup, Rayudu batted 14 times at No. 4, scoring 464 runs including one century and two 50s, at an average of 42.18 and strike rate of 85.60. He also opened the batting once and played at No. 3 on a handful of occasions. These are not standout numbers – and the stats, as well as the manner in which he has been defeated by bowlers, has left Kohli and the coaching team, led by Ravi Shastri, thinking about alternatives.

So who are the other contenders?
Dhoni and Pandya have been tried out at No. 4. Even Kohli can slide down, but he prefers to bat one-down. The other contenders are Rahul, Karthik and Pant. Rahul has played 14 ODIs for India but has received the backing of seasoned pundits like former India captain Sunil Gavaskar, who believes the Karnataka player can bat at No. 4. However, the three times Rahul has batted in that position, he has scored 17, 9 not out and 0. The last two scores came during the ODI series in England last year, where Rahul endured a terrible tour, barring a century each in the Manchester T20I, and in the Oval Test.

Karthik is vastly experienced but has never managed to cement his slot in the middle order. He is known mostly for cameos in the lower order but has rarely provided the confidence batting higher up. Since the 2015 World Cup Karthik played at No. 4 on nine occasions with four not outs. The 264 runs he scored came at 52.80, at a strike rate of 71.35 and included two half-centuries.

And Pant?
The Pant question is the raging debate. While his glovework remains work in progress, his fearless batting could be an X-factor, as seen during the Test series in England and Australia. One advantage Pant has over the other contenders is he is left-handed, which is considered to be an advantage. Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina proved that during India’s successful campaign in the 2011 World Cup.

But can Pant be flexible in his mind, be mindful of the situation and bat accordingly? Can you put the pressure on a 21-year-old, who has played just five ODIs, and ask him to bat in a position that, according to Kohli, demands a balance of caution and aggression? All three – Rahul, Karthik, Pant – have the skillset. The selectors have a headache.

What about Vijay Shankar?
Yes, Prasad did point out recently that Vijay had added a “new dimension” to the selections. But Vijay is likely to fight more with Ravindra Jadeja for the allrounder’s spot.

And does Vijay hold the upper hand?
It is not so straightforward, with Jadeja’s considerable experience being a factor. Vijay has shown he can handle tough situations with the bat, can float in the middle order and has the ability to play the big shots. But he has played only a few ODIs. As a bowler, he is slow-medium, which might not pose a challenge to opposing batsmen in the middle overs, especially with teams upping the ante in that period of play. If Vijay fails to tie up one end, it will add pressure on the spinner at the other end, as was the case during the home ODI series against Australia in March where Kuldeep struggled to dominate.

Jadeja has always been used by captains as a defensive bowler, who can execute well most times. He can pair off with Jadhav to bowl the middle overs quickly, and he remains India’s best fielder. The key question for the selectors would then be which player among the two would be more effective on what are likely to be slow pitches during the World Cup.

Is there scope for a fourth specialist fast bowler?
It does not fit the combinations Kohli has tried in his captaincy. He prefers having a bowling unit that includes at least one specialist spinner along with three fast bowlers and at least one allrounder.

Any dark horses?
Prasad’s team had already shortlisted a pool of 18-20 players from which the 15 will be picked. Some of those darkhorses include Delhi fast bowler Navdeep Saini and Mumbai batsman Prithvi Shaw.

Will IPL form be considered?
Kohli and Prasad have been clear that the IPL form of only those players that have been shortlisted in the World Cup pool will be followed.

Who are the five selectors?
The five-member selection panel comprises Prasad, Sarandeep Singh, Debang Gandhi, Jatin Paranjpe and Gagan Khoda.

Anything else?
The ICC has allowed teams to make changes to the final squads until May 23.

Between the one-month window – April 23 to May 23 – changes can be made to the squads without needing to provide a reason. After May 23, through the tournament, the tournament technical committee will process any requests for squad changes.

ESPNcricinfo understands that April 23 is the deadline because that allows the ICC to start the logistical processes of booking rooms, travel, etc, but the 30-day allowance lets teams that are playing series in that period to get their squads up to full strength.

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