Normally announcements for squads happen at a reasonable time around mid-afternoon to make allowance for deadlines of media houses, especially print publications.
But these are unusual times in the Indian cricket where such deadlines are being completely disregarded. Remember how the squad for the Sri Lanka white-ball tour was announced at 10.45 pm, when most newspapers are mostly done for the day.
Keeping in line with this departure from convention, the Indian squad for the T20 World Cup was to be announced at 9 pm India time. Now that was a surprise because usually such announcements come without any prior warning. Just suddenly a cryptic media release drops into your mailbox without a warning, then it is time for newsrooms to go crazy.
This time there was going to be more fun because for the first time ever, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) would allow their chief selector Chetan Sharma to answer questions and, more importantly, it would be the first official sighting of Jay Shah, the powerful secretary in a talkie. (Though why India still continues to be the only country in the world that has a board official sitting in a selection meeting remains a mystery.)
So many unusual things happening at or around the announcement of the Indian squad for the T20 World Cup meant that something was afoot. Something big was going to happen. What would it be?
It was a question on everyone’s minds as the announcement began.
Lo and behold! We had the reason for these many strange occurrences around a regular squad announcement. It was to do with a couple of reasons: the return of Ravichandran Ashwin in a white ball squad after four years and the appointment of the ever-elusive Mahendra Singh Dhoni as team’s mentor.
Both of these announcements were huge surprises because no one in their wildest dreams would have predicted them. Even the closest watchers of Indian cricket were caught unawares.
The Indian captain Virat Kohli had been on record on how Washington Sundar in white-ball cricket, especially in the T20I format, has stolen a march over Ashwin. Sundar’s bowling, fielding and sometimes useful batting made him a definite pick in T20 cricket. Ashwin had thus missed out. Ashwin’s absence was also because, four years ago, after the Champions Trophy 2017 debacle, the think-tank moved to the wrist spin duo of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.
But now, four years on, that experiment has been shelved and life has moved a full circle from Kul-Cha to Ra-Ra (Ravindra Jadeja-Ravichandran Ashwin). Remember the last ICC senior men’s title in 2013 was on the back of the Ra-Ra show.
The wheel of fortune has turned so much that Chahal has been left out completely with Rahul Chahar coming in as a replacement because of his pacy leg-breaks. Jadeja is obviously an automatic pick. But the presence of Axar Patel shows just how much the captain has faith in the Gujarat all-rounder over Baroda’s Krunal Pandya who performs similar role.
Back to Ashwin... The return of this experienced campaigner shows just how much the think-tank (selectors included) feel he is crucial to the team’s chances in the tournament. Remember, India have not won an ICC’s senior men’s title since 2013; they have not won the T20 World Cup since the inaugural edition in 2007. Over the years, in T20 World Cups, India have basically backed one-dimensional, almost an ODI squad, which is not how they won the inaugural edition.
This time the selectors are banking on doing something radical by picking five spinners to match the conditions in UAE post a long-drawn-out second half of Indian Premier League (IPL).
Ashwin has been a regular in the IPL turning out relentlessly for Punjab Kings first and then Delhi Capitals where he has shown value of his experience. Ashwin has bowled intelligently, especially in the initial overs, a role similar to what Kohli uses Sundar in.
So it was a given once Sundar got injured, Ashwin would probably get a mention, but a recall was a huge step. And if you worried about Ashwin’s batting, then worry not because he is as capable a batsman, if not better, than Sundar.
Since reunion was the theme of the day, Dhoni’s return in the Indian dressing room completed the loop. Dhoni has obviously been brought in to help tide over the nervy moments that have resulted in the squad not crossing the line in ICC’s senior men’s tournaments.
His experience of having led India to three senior ICC men’s titles will prove handy. He has the respect of the dressing room, especially the captain Kohli and his white-ball deputy Rohit Sharma. Ravi Shastri, the head coach, is also on board, apparently, with the decision.
But let us hope that this does not create alternate power structure within the squad. We have seen in the past how these short-term appointments were viewed with derision.
Sunil Gavaskar, the former India captain, joined the Indian squad for the home series against Australia and South Africa as consultant in 2004-05. There was total lack of communication as head coach John Wright did not view it kindly.
Then, most recently, in 2017, when Shastri returned as head coach, Rahul Dravid and Zaheer Khan were appointed as consultants. But, reportedly, Shastri and Kohli did not look at the appointments too favourably. So Dravid and Khan never really performed any role as consultants.
It remains to be seen if this time it will be any different. Dhoni’s role is meant to be on par with Shastri, so it could be everything from strategy to organising sessions. In a way, Dhoni could be in a role similar to Shastri himself was in 2014-15 when head coach Duncan Fletcher was still around with the squad.
India is going in with just three seamers – Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah – the same trio who did duty at the 2019 50-over World Cup. India has tried many fast bowlers in the past couple of years, but come the biggest stage, they have gone back to their tried and tested bunch. Deepak Chahar could well feel particularly aggrieved, but then he can show his disappointment as a net bowler.
The mysterious ways of Indian cricket did not end just with the announcement of the squad, there was so much intrigue that the chief selector too got confused at the press briefing. While extolling virtues of Varun Chakravarthy as a mystery bowler, Sharma referred to him as Varun Aaron, the forgotten Indian quickie (not forgotten by Stuart Broad though!).
Was there a hint in that misstep by Sharma for Aaron or for Chakravarthy? Time will only tell closer to the end of the T20 World Cup.