India play their first match of the Champions Trophy against Pakistan at Edgbaston on Sunday. It promises to be a momentous occasion, as there is arguably no bigger sporting rivalry in the world. Over one billion people watched this clash when the two sides met in the 2015 ODI World Cup. Indeed, the whole cricketing world will be fixated on the encounter and it’s key for both sides to find their optimal combination. The two warm up matches played by India were meant to be a good way of deciding who should be in the starting XI, but it appears to produced more questions than answers.
The question of who should open for India is a longstanding question, with no settled partnership having been set. An injury to Lokesh Rahul has narrowed down the potential opening spot to three candidates: Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma. Coming into the warm-up matches, the most likely opening partnership was going to be Rahane and Rohit. However, Shikhar Dhawan put it in two exceptional performances in the warm-up games to throw the debate wide open again. Moreover, Dhawan was the leading run scorer in the 2013 Champions Trophy, which was also held in England and Wales. Both Rohit and Rahane have not performed too well in the run-up to their departure for England, as they had mixed success in the IPL. There is a very strong case to opt for Ajinkya Rahane as he has a phenomenal record in England, shown by his performance in India’s 2014 tour. Yet, it is likely that the Indian selectors will choose Dhawan and Rohit for their match against Pakistan. Rohit Sharma offers more experience than Rahane in limited overs cricket and has two double hundreds to his name. It would be foolish to leave him out as he is a potential match winner.
There is only one player who has a set spot in India’s middle order, which is Virat Kohli at No.3. Other than that, no one’s place is guaranteed, not even former captain MS Dhoni. After an illness to Manish Pandey, Gujarat wicketkeeper Dinesh Karthik was called up to the squad. And In India’s warm-up match against Bangladesh on Tuesday, Karthik hit a superb 94 before he decided to retire. He also looked comfortable with the gloves, as he took four catches behind the stumps, including a screamer off the bowling of Bhuvneshwar Kumar. To bolster his chances, Yuvraj Singh was ruled out of the warm-up games after a fever, meaning that he is desperately out of match practice. The selectors may, therefore, be hesitant to put him straight into the side, especially after Karthik’s excellent recent form. However, both Dhoni and Yuvraj are vastly more experienced than Karthik and in a clash as important as a game against Pakistan, they need all the experience they can get. Therefore, it would be wise for India to bat Yuvraj at four and Dhoni at five.
Towards the end of the middle orders, Kedar Jadhav should be batting at six. There is one major advantage which Jadhav has over Karthik: his part-time off-spin. Jadhav took a myriad of wickets against New Zealand in their ODI series last year and he appeared to have a golden arm. His aggressive style of play makes him an invaluable player and India may turn to him for when they need quick runs. As a result, India will be forced to leave Dinesh Karthik out of their side. This seems to be a harsh decision, but they are very lucky to have so much depth in their squad.
Ashwin or Pandya
A key debate for India will be whether they choose fast-bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya or off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. If this series was being played in the subcontinent it would hardly be a dilemma, as Ashwin’s record in Asia on turning pitches is phenomenal. However, it’s the seaming pitches that bring Hardik Pandya into the debate.
Ravichandran Ashwin has had an excellent Test season, emerging as the number one Test bowler after ripping through both New Zealand and England. However, his recent ODI performances have been mediocre and he is known to struggle abroad. The last time Ashwin came to England, in 2014, he struggled to find his line and length. He has not played competitive cricket for several months now, as he missed the IPL after he suffered from the burden of India’s long home Test season. Moreover, in the warm-up matches, he appeared to struggle and was not as effective as usual.
In contrast to this, Pandya looked in good form with both bat and ball. The 23-year-old, a limited overs specialist, would be a great inclusion in this India side (ahead of Ashwin) and is one of those rarities in Indian cricket – a genuine fast-bowling all-rounder. He played a huge role in India’s 2016 T20 World Cup run, in which he produced some magnificent performances, including defending 2 runs off 3 balls against Bangladesh. His style of bowling will be extremely useful in Edgbaston, where the cloud cover is likely to offer some swing, and the pitch should provide more pace and bounce. So it would be unwise of India to include Ashwin ahead of the Mumbai Indians star.
The Seam Attack
For the first time in several years, India’s seam attack is one of the strongest aspects of their side. They have four exceptionally talented seamers in Jaspirit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami. In addition to this, fast bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya may be an option Kohli turns to throughout the course of the tournament. It is likely that India’s attack will be lead by Mohammed Shami who has been their first choice seamer recently. If Pandya gets the nod ahead of Ashwin, it would be the case that they would play two more seamers, meaning one of Yadav, Kumar and Bumrah would have to sit out.
Ideally, India should pick Kumar and Bumrah as they are the two most accurate and economical bowlers. While he has no doubt improved over the course of an arduous home season, Yadav is prone to bowling too many loose deliveries, which routinely get punished by decent batsmen. Moreover, Kumar is India’s biggest exponent of the swinging ball and would be vital with the new ball. Bumrah’s reputation as one of the best death bowlers in the world will be crucial also. Umesh Yadav, though, is a very talented seamer who would make into many sides’ pace attack after a strong home season.
The XI India Should Pick
- Rohit Sharma
- Shikhar Dhawan
- Virat Kohli (C)
- Yuvraj Singh
- MS Dhoni (WK)
- Kedar Jadhav
- Hardik Pandya
- Ravindra Jadeja
- Bhuvneshwar Kumar
- Mohammed Shami
- Jaspirit Bumrah