India, finally at full strength

For perhaps the first time since being appointed ODI captain in December 2021, India skipper Rohit Sharma has a first-choice squad at his disposal for the Asia Cup beginning on August 30. The squad for the tournament was announced here on Monday afternoon after a selection meeting that was attended by Sharma and head coach Rahul Dravid. KL Rahul and Shreyas Iyer have returned from surgeries while pacers Jasprit Bumrah and Prasidh Krishna, featuring in the ongoing T20 series against Ireland, will take another decisive step in their comebacks from serious back injuries by featuring in the 50-over format. The only unexpected inclusion in India’s 17-member squad for the continental event is 20-year-old batter Tilak Varma, who is yet to play for India in ODIs.

Rohit Sharma will have the liberty of leading a first-choice Indian squad at the Asia Cup.(Getty)

With the selection panel needing to name the 15-member squad for the ODI World Cup by September 5 — a month before the start of the tournament — the presence of all the top players is a welcome boost. The only caveat is that Rahul is nursing a niggle that chief selector Ajit Agarkar said may rule out the 31-year-old for their opening Asia Cup game against Pakistan in Pallekele on September 2. Sanju Samson will travel with the team for the Asia Cup as a back-up wicketkeeper as a result.

That Sharma wants to wait for the start of the tournament before rejoicing the availability of all his players is instructive of the injuries that have afflicted the team in the recent past.

“I will be happy on the day of the (first) game if everyone is available on that team sheet. I will be happy then,” Sharma told reporters on Monday. “Injuries are a part and parcel of the game. They are happening not just in India but everywhere around the world. When you have injuries, you can’t really do too much other than thinking how we can get the other guys to come and do the role that the injured players were doing. That’s all you can do and hope that the guys who are injured come back quicker. Now that they are back, hopefully they stay on for a longer period of time. But I don’t want to talk too much about it. We want to look at the positive side now and move ahead with that.”

With India playing just two Asia Cup games before the World Cup squad is announced, Agarkar, addressing his first press conference since taking up the role, made it clear that these are the players in contention for the marquee event. India have a maximum of six matches in the Asia Cup and three games against Australia going into the World Cup.

“It is really a no-brainer. We have picked 18 guys here. So, it (the World Cup squad) will be in and around these guys. We have a few important players coming back from injuries. Hopefully, all goes well with them. We have a short camp and a couple of games before picking the squad.”

While experience is usually sought after for a high-stakes tournament such as the World Cup, Varma’s inclusion for the Asia Cup is testament to the impression he has made since making his T20 debut on the recent tour of the Caribbean. His international experience for the time being is limited to seven T20Is, and he has also been included in India’s T20 squad for the Asian Games from September 19 to October 8. Even though Varma is unlikely to make the cut for the World Cup, there’s plenty for the left-hand batter from Hyderabad to gain from being part of a full-strength squad in Sri Lanka.

“We have got the luxury of picking 17 right now. We saw some real promise in the West Indies, not just in terms of his performances but also the temperament,” said Agarkar. “This gives us an opportunity to take him with the team and give him more exposure. He’s a left-hander. He looks really promising. When the time comes, we will take that decision (about the World Cup). But for the time being, it gives the captain and coach at least the opportunity to have him with the squad.”

Among the prominent absentees is leggie Yuzvendra Chahal, who perhaps saw the decision coming when he wasn’t picked for any of the three one-dayers in the Caribbean. Left-arm wrist-spinner Kuldeep Yadav is the sole specialist spinner in the squad, with all-rounders Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel completing the spin department.

“He (Chahal) has been a terrific performer for India. Kuldeep has obviously had a fantastic run at this point. To fit two wrist-spinners might be difficult. You can only fit 15. So, unfortunately one has to miss out. At this point, Kuldeep is a little bit ahead of him,” Agarkar explained.

In case Rahul’s niggle becomes a bigger worry than anticipated, Ishan Kishan will slot in as wicketkeeper in the playing eleven. While Kishan is accustomed to opening the batting, he may have to settle for a role in the middle-order. Sharma underlined the importance of flexibility in the batting line-up.

“Look, one thing I want in this team is to make sure everyone is okay to bat anywhere. That is one thing we need to keep in mind. You need flexibility. You need guys who can step up at any position. We want guys to bat anywhere. That is the message that has been conveyed to every individual. Not just now but for the last 3-4 years,” Sharma said.

The call for flexibility often comes into conflict with role clarity, but Sharma elaborated on his thinking with a bit more nuance. “When I say flexibility is important, it doesn’t mean you send an opener at No. 7. Or make Hardik (Pandya) open. That doesn’t happen. I have opened for the last 7-8 years. Kohli has batted at No. 3. At No. 4 and 5, the newer guys need to be open to bat up and down the order. If you look at the past five years, the openers open. The No. 3 bats at 3. Hardik comes at 6. Jadeja is at 7. No. 4 and 5 will be a bit up and down. That should not be a problem,” he said.

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