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Talking Points: Rohit-Ishant injury spotlight and the opening conundrum

by  Adil  •  Last updated on 2020-10-27 10:37:47

Sunil Joshi and Harvinder Singh took guard as national selectors when they convened online to pick the squads for India's first international cricket assignment since the Covid-19 pandemic stopped the sport in March. In keeping with the restrictions on travel during the pandemic, they picked out a 28-player contingent plus four reserve bowlers for the Australian tour spanning two months and three formats. Two other players namely Rohit Sharma and Ishant Sharma, currently injured may be part of the travelling contingent subject to their fitness.

Here are the key talking points from the squads picked out.

Injury spotlight on Rohit Sharma and Ishant Sharma

India could begin their defence of the Border-Gavaskar without their first-choice opener and their front-line fast bowler after Rohit and Ishant bagged asterisks from the BCCI medical team. Ishant was ruled out of the ongoing IPL 2020 after sustaining an abdominal muscle tear. Incidentally, the IPL was his first tournament back after a recurrence of an ankle injury ruled him out of the Christchurch Test in February.

In a career of two halves, Ishant has evolved into the leader of the bowling attack, marrying his canny ability to hold one end up on overseas tours with wicket-taking acumen. In his last 36 Tests dating back to 2015, Ishant has taken 110 wickets at an average of 24.03.

There is more intrigue surrounding Rohit, who despite missing the last two IPL games for Mumbai Indians with a left hamstring injury, has remained with the franchise and not ruled out of the competition. Incidentally, Rohit was pictured padded up and heading for practice in a Tweet by the club moments after his national team selection was made subject to fitness clearance.

The squad for the tour of Australia will depart from the UAE immediately after the IPL, significantly reducing the chances for Ishant, who has flown back to India. Although BCCI may choose to specially fly the players to Australia at a later date, the quarantine rules and travel restrictions could place a significant logistical overhead.

KL Rahul joins the openers' roulette

The beneficiary of Rohit's ill-fated tryst with injuries since making a stunning start to life as a Test opener in Vizag last year is the man he replaced at the spot - KL Rahul. Where Rahul has bagged vice-captaincy of white-ball teams (in Rohit's absence) on merit, his red-ball credentials have dipped since a series of half-centuries in 2017. In the last two years, a half-century against Afghanistan and a chancy hundred at The Oval are his only 50+ scores. He made 101 runs across four innings in West Indies last year before losing his spot for the home season and the New Zealand series. Curiously, he was also not part of the 'A' side on the tour to New Zealand.

One man who was part of that A tour and also scored a 136 as an opener is Shubman Gill. The 21-year-old has been used as a backup and may just find himself drop lower in the pecking order with Rahul bringing 36 Tests worth of experience. India paired Prithvi Shaw with Mayank Agarwal in New Zealand but despite a 54 in the second Test, concerns remain over his technique. India finished their last tour of Australia with a new opener - Mayank - and a makeshift one - Hanuma Vihari. They have potentially four options now but none clearer for it.

The Mohammed Siraj call-up...

... is a reward for sustained excellence in first-class cricket for Hyderabad and India A. Since breaking through in 2015-16, Siraj has taken 147 wickets from 36 games at an average of 23. This includes a best of 8/59 for India A against an Australia A line-up featuring Test players Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Peter Handscomb and Travis Head. Against West Indies A last year, he took 9 wickets from two games at 24.11 and four more wickets against South Africa A. He was also part of the A tour to New Zealand early this year after claiming 19 wickets from five Ranji Trophy games.

Siraj brings holding qualities to a seam bowling attack that features Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami as the arrowheads. Umesh Yadav averages 45.85 from 8 Tests in Australia including a forgettable outing on a green Perth track last time around. Navdeep Saini, an attacker in the similar ilk, remains untested in the format.

Unconventional in spin, but too conventional in batting?

The inclusion of Tamil Nadu spinner Varun Chakravarthy adds to India's already diverse spin artillery, equipped with the likes of Ravindra Jadeja, Washington Sundar and Yuzvendra Chahal. Varun's trickery through the middle-overs in the big Australian grounds could prove to be handful, and also give Virat Kohli the option of attacking the PowerPlays with Yuzvendra Chahal when faced with favourable match-ups.

Chakravarthy has 13 wickets in 11 games so far this season - the best returns for a KKR bowler - and has conceded runs at an acceptable economy rate of 7.18. India have rightly rewarded some of the IPL performances, including Chakravarthy's, but they seemed to have missed a big trick at the other end of the line-up, with Suryakumar Yadav's omission. The Mumbai batsman scored 392 runs at a strike rate of 168.97 and an average in last year's Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s - finishing third of the batting charts. Preceding that were two immensely successful IPLs - 512 runs in 2018, 424 in 2019, and another notable start this year - 283 in 11 games at a strike rate of 148.94.

Beyond the numbers, it is the dash of unorthodoxy to his stroke play that would've added a new dimension to a line-up that has far too many conventional top-order batsmen. The upturn in Shikhar Dhawan's run-rate through this season of IPL perhaps made it impossible to leave him out while Mayank Agarwal has also deserved his opportunity, but India are now left with far too many batsmen - Virat Kohli, KL Rahul, Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey - who prefer to bat in the top-three, and do so for their respective franchises. Suryakumar, on the other hand, has the versatility to adapt and play lower down the order.

Hardik the finisher returns... but Hardik the bowler?

Hardik Pandya returns after a lengthy layoff and a back surgery conducted last November. There is no doubting his credentials as a finisher - with a further glimpse of his immaculate power game coming in his frenzied knock against Rajasthan Royals - but what of his bowling returns? Mumbai Indians have enough squad and line-up depth to tread cautiously and play him just as a specialist batsman, but can India afford to?

He comes back at the expense of Shivam Dube, which means the squad is without a single fast-bowling allrounder option if Hardik is kept away from his secondary vocation. And if that is indeed the case, the balance of India's line-up will once again come into question, considering none of the top-five batting options in the squad can chip in with a couple of overs as a sixth bowling option.