India vs South Africa: Shikhar Dhawan to Navdeep Saini, five players to watch out for in upcoming T20I series
It's the start of the new home season for Indian cricket and it kicks off with the T20I series against South Africa. The three-match series is first of many T20Is tournaments that Virat Kohli and Co will be playing in their run-up to the 2020 T20 World Cup in Australia.
T20Is, in a way, have been the bane of Indian cricket over the years. An all-conquering unit in Tests and formidable side in ODIs, India haven't completely cracked the puzzle in the shortest format of the game despite them being the winner of the first World T20 in 2007 " a fact reflected in their rankings. The Asian side sits on top of standings in Tests and trail just the world champions England in 50-over rankings but find themselves at four on the T20I table.
There's still over a year to go for the T20 World Cup and all the matches that India will play in this duration will be as much about winning as it would be about finding the perfect players for different roles in the side.
Indian selectors already took the first step towards rebuilding the T20 side when they included quite a few youngsters and new faces for the West Indies tour. Almost the same squad with an exception of Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been retained for the Proteas series. Hardik Pandya has come in for Bhuvneshwar, who has been rested.
When you try to find players who would set the stage on fire in this Indian squad, it's impossible to look beyond the likes of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant. But the upcoming series and the upcoming season is not about these superstars. The Kohlis and Rohits are not only established names but consistency is a guarantee with them. Instead, the selectors and team management will be on the lookout to find more players who will fall in the consistent category and will then fill in slots for different roles in the side.
We take a look at players, young and old, to watch out for in upcoming series who have things to prove as India aim to firm up their world-conquering unit.
There's a reason Shikhar Dhawan's name was not placed alongside Kohli or Rohit in earlier sentences and that is because of his less than impressive T20I record. And that makes Dhawan an uncertainty in the format, especially when he's feeling the heat from KL Rahul. Dhawan compares poorly to Rahul on major statistics for T20Is; average or strike rate. But more importantly, his current form in the format is beyond dismal.
105 runs at an average of 15 at a strike rate of 100 in seven matches in 2019. That reads very poorly. Still, Dhawan is superstar, a proven international performer and a left-hander, that could prompt management to pick him ahead of Rahul. And if that happens, Dhawan will have to make it count. Will he? Only time will tell but his successful outing in IPL for Delhi Capitals is a reckoner that he can. What management needs is to give him a consistent run, because if the decision clicks then nightmares for bowlers are guaranteed.
Surprised? Don't be. Yes, Manish Pandey played in all the three matches in West Indies while Iyer warmed the bench but this is where one must stick the neck out and make a bold prediction; that Iyer will be taking precedence over Pandey against South Africa. After missing out on T20Is, Iyer impressed all with two fifties in two innings in the ODIs. There's no fault of Pandey but Iyer looks like the guy for future, and the perfect fit to solve the middle-order conundrum. He scored the ODI fifties from No 5 position but could be the perfect foil for Rishabh Pant's recklessness.
Iyer, at No 4, can drive India through the middle overs while Pant can be the aggressor in final overs. He has a strike rate of a shade over 130 in T20s and holds the capability to bat in different gears. With Iyer, the question for team management is when rather than why.
Hardik is a certainty. He is one of his kind in India " a seam-bowling all-rounder who can bowl crucial overs and smash opposition bowlers consistently over the ropes. Then why does he still feature in this list? The answer to that comes in two parts. Firstly, Hardik is making a comeback to the Indian side after a layoff. A valuable player to the side, Hardik was rested for the West Indies tour, but now that he is returning, all eyes will be on his performance. India will want the eccentric cricketer to find his rhythm soon.
Secondly, we are fast approaching two back-to-back T20 World Cups. Hardik has been nothing less than a freak for Mumbai Indians in the IPL, winning matches for them single-handedly on numerous occasions. His international T20I career has obviously been less impressive in comparison. For Hardik, the challenge will be to take his game to another level and mould himself into a consistent match-winner.
There's no Jasprit Bumrah or Bhuvneshwar in India squad. Both those pacers will return to the India fold as we get closer to the ICC mega event. But the slot for third, and if required, the fourth pacer is still vacant. In the upcoming series, Navdeep Saini, Deepak Chahar, and Khaleel Ahmed have the opportunity to further their case for that spot.
After impressing in the IPL, Saini finally made the breakthrough in West Indies. On his debut, he took three wickets for 17 in four overs. He finished the series as highest wicket-taker with five scalps. For him, more of the same should be the mantra. Continue the good work and book the ticket for Australia. But first, he needs to beat Khaleel and Deepak in the race.
Rahul featured in only one match on the West Indies tour, which was also his debut. He gave away 27 runs in three overs with one wicket. The only match he played was a dead rubber " third T20I. There are Ravindra Jadeja and Washington Sundar in the squad also, and the two tweakers are ahead of the 20-year-old leg-spinner in the pecking order. But he still makes our list, based on the fact that he's the only wrist-spinner in the side.
Selectors have once again picked him ahead of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal and there seems to be a plan in place. The advent of T20 cricket forced spinners to reinvent, one of the most successful such breeds is that of the wrist-spinners. Crafty and deceiving, leggies have been constantly bamboozling batsmen in the format. India want to keep the option open for themselves. Kuldeep and Chahal are proven products and can always return down the line but it is Rahul's IPL wizardry that has forced selectors to give him a go. There's definitely some decision-making still to be done about the wrist-spinner slot and for Rahul he must make the most of any opportunity that comes across his way to ensure a long run for himself.