22/04/2024

Team India celebrates retaining the Border - Gavaskar Trophy after a famous victory at the Gabba. Image Source: cricket.com.au

Following a whirlwind series victory down under, the Indian cricket team now must find a balance between rewarding superb performance and reinstating returning stars.

Sean Mortell dives into the immense talent the Indian selectors have to choose from.

It was the golden age of Australian cricket.

When Adam Gilchrist took charge of the Aussie test team for their November 2004 tour of India, barely any expected them to romp to a 2-1 victory without the injured Ricky Ponting. It was a stage where a flashy young, bleached blonde-haired Michael Clarke broke onto the scene, Where Simon Katich filled the void at first drop and Damien Martyn entered his career purple patch.

But Australia’s 2004 conquering of the ‘final frontier’ didn’t equate to a settled side. In the glowing aftermaths of the away triumph, the test team struggled to select a constant team for their home summer. In the eight tests that Australia played over the 2004/05 summer, a younger Simon Katich jockeyed with the older Darren Lehmann for a middle-order spot despite averaging just over 46 when he played.

It’s the dark side of underdog success; now, India has a selection dilemma awaiting them of thier own.

India’s 2020/21 Border-Gavaskar Trophy reclamation wasn’t a conquering of the ‘final frontier’ – they had already done so on their last trip down under.

But the 2-1 series win this time around will go down in Indian cricket history as their greatest to date.

From being bowled out for 36 in the first test and then losing their spearhead skipper to steadily missing their entire bowling unit and batting stability due to injury, India still somehow managed to chase down a record-breaking 326 on the final day at the Gabba to claim the unlikeliest of Test match and series wins. So many headlines and so many trends were broken.

Now, the emerging heroes of this triumph will be pitted against a steady stream of returning stars for only eleven spots in the Indian team.

India is in its own golden age and faces the selection pitfalls that come with deep pools of talent.

Former Indian coach and Australian captain Greg Chappell said around twenty years ago that if the major cricketing nation created the right infrastructure, they could produce at least three teams full of players that could dominate test cricket. If they managed to do so, they’d be unstoppable.

Chappell’s proclamation may be coming to fruition – but how do India’s selectors juggle the fine line between rewarding recent performance and selecting the best, most experienced side available?

In the past week, the Indian selection committee released an expanded 18-man squad for the first test against England, which begins on February 5 at Chennai. From the Gabba test, only Navdeep Saini and T Natarajan were left out.

With the quality of Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Virat Kohli, and Ravichandran Ashwin all set to return for the England series, there’ll be four very unlucky players who may have to make way.

India will have to balance young talent with returning experience. Virat Kohli is a must; it would be a game selector to consider leaving such a talented force out. A player with the aura of Kohli will easily slide back into his customary number four spot, meaning fill-in captain Ajinkya Rahane will drop down to number five. With Cheteshwar Pujara at first drop, putting India’s reliable top and middle order core back together.

Here’s where it becomes complicated; Shubman Gill’s stand-out start to his Test career means he has to maintain his opening spot. The 21-year-old’s exuberance and confidence against Australia’s fearsome pace attack is one little gem of emerging talent that India must work hard to nurture.

For it is a reliable opener is one facet every test playing nation dearly yearns for.

With Rohit Sharma also putting his best foot forward in recent years and again recently in Australia (except for some lapses in concentration), he should retain his opening spot.

In this instance, Agarwal may become the Simon Katich of his era – a player boasting two test double centuries and averaging a tick over 45 who can’t find a way to crack into the test team.

With a top-five seemingly set in stone, Rishabh Pant must retain his spot as the keeper-batter. The Indian hierarchy has historically chosen to drop Pant for Whriddiman Saha in the home series due to the latter’s superior keeping skills on low, turning decks. But Pant’s two vital knocks in Brisbane and Sydney proved that his all-round package adds X-factor to the Indian line-up; such young talent like Pant should be preferred over Saha’s reliability.

While the batting has its talking points, the bowling is where India will have the largest headaches.

Losing their whole frontline attack to injury in Australia allowed many emerging prospects to perform. Fortunately (or now, unfortunately), all of them did.

Jasprit Bumrah is a certainty to play in his first home test match if he is passed fit.

From there it is mightily tough.

Mohammed Siraj has had a whirlwind but brilliant start to his Test career (where he snagged 13 wickets in three tests including a maiden five-wicket haul), but the question remains, how quickly does India go back to the trusty swing bowler Ishant Sharma?

The latter’s record speaks for itself. with age comes experience and Ishant, now 32, is closer to the end than the start but has proved over recent seasons that as he gets older, he continues to develop his game in the Test arena. while Siraj is only 26. It’s a selection decision that has the chance to make or break careers.

When Umesh Yadav and Mohammad Shami return from thier injuries, even more stress will creep into the selectors’ minds.

Ravichandran Ashwin is back in the squad, and seemingly ready to spin a web in home conditions. As one of the world’s leading spinners, he deserves the first crack on any pitch. But without Ravindra Jadeja as a supporting all-rounder, the door remains ajar for Washington Sundar.

Just months ago, it would’ve been unfathomable to picture Sundar in test calculations. Now, he has taken his chance wonderfully and doesn’t deserve to have it prised away from him.

If it was in hard, fast bowling conditions like Australia or South Africa, Shardul Thakur may have gotten the chance to play again, but in India, it may be Sundar who gets the nod until Jadeja is fit again.

Either that or specialist leg-spinner Kuldeep Yadav may be thrown into discussions to combine with Ashwin. It’s these issues that’ll plague the Indian selection panel, and what makes the following period make-or-break for them.

It’s both a wonderful yet a horrible place to be in. With so many talented players waiting to perform, India’s talent pool has never been deeper. In the midst of their golden age, will India’s selectors elect for experience over youth? or invest further in thier unearthed stars over the proven established stars?

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