Indian cricket went through a phase in the early 2000s, when their combination of seven batsmen and four bowlers did not change from match to match, series to series and even one format to another. The objective was to strengthen the batting and make up for the limited bowling resources available to Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. The necessity to field seven proper batsmen—Virender Sehwag, Ganguly, VVS Laxman/Dinesh Mongia/Gautam Gambhir, Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid, Yuvraj Singh, and Mohammed Kaif—was the reason why Dravid had to keep wickets.
But, this blueprint worked a treat and some of India’s great ODI victories were achieved with the 7-4 combination. The 2002 NatWest Final win at the Lord’s, the win at the Oval in 2006, also against England, and the six-wicket win against Pakistan at Supersport Park come instantly to mind. Of course, the likes of Yuvraj, Sehwag and Tendulkar had to bowl the fifth bowler quota of 10 overs, and needless to say, India’s opponents tried to maximise these 60 balls.
The Indian side of today is resourceful and the standout feature is the quality bowling attack which Virat Kohli has at his disposal. Not to forget the three all-rounders, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Hardik Pandya, who look like they can lend perfect balance to the team. This new-found resourcefulness, though, poses a sizeable problem for the Indian think-tank ahead of their Champions Trophy campaign opener against Pakistan.
The problem that the team management has to address is who plays the No. 7 role, or more precisely, who is best suited for the No. 7 position. The rest of the playing XI pretty much picks itself.
Hardik Pandya vs Ravichandran Ashwin
The onus is on the team management to decide what they want from their No. 7: do they want a player who bowls a few overs but also provides quick runs with the bat, or is the player expected to provide 10 good overs even if he doesn’t make a big contribution with the bat?
Now, the English conditions aren’t what they used to be. Of course, if the sky is overcast, the ball might well dart around and the atmosphere will certainly be and feel English. But, if the sun is out and if the pitches for the Champions Trophy are what they have been over the last couple of years in England, then you can expect to see a lot of runs being scored and teams looking to chase down scores.
From Ashwin’s perspective, he is likelier than Pandya to bowl 10 overs in an innings. And the Tamilnadu off-spinner also has a good ODI bowling record in England, where, in 14 ODIs, he has taken 21 wickets and been economical (4.69 runs per over) as well. The scenario this time around is different, with Ashwin coming into a major ICC tournament having not bowled competitively for over two months.
Ashwin, who was the leading wicket-taker with 82 wickets in the grand Indian home season, has had a couple of poor seasons since the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015. In nine one-dayers, Ashwin has taken just 12 wickets and been expensive (5.55 runs per over) too.
On the plus side, the 30-year-old has experience and can be banked on. Unlike in Test cricket, Ashwin isn’t going to contribute many runs with the bat and is not your pinch hitter capable of playing a cameo at No. 7 or 8. But the bottom line is Kohli can get 10 overs out of Ashwin and more importantly, the offie can be expected to provide control by taking wickets during the middle phase of the innings (overs 10-40). Going into the clash against Pakistan, Ashwin will have had seven overs of bowling in two warm-up matches.
Coming to Pandya, he does not have Ashwin’s experience. But what the Baroda all-rounder brings to the table is plenty of confidence from a stellar Indian Premier League season as part of the title-winning Mumbai Indians side. Under pressure, Pandya delivered the goods with the bat and with the ball. Also, on a more fundamental level, he is a vastly better fielder than Ashwin and with the bat, Pandya is capable of playing cameos lower down the order.
The problem with and for the youngster is, he is neither a reliable batsman nor a bowler. One day, you can have him opening the bowling and providing a couple of early breakthroughs and on another day, he can be expensive. Also, assuming he’s the fifth bowler, can Hardik bowl his full quota of 10 overs?
Only once in seven ODIs so far for India, has Pandya completed his quota of overs, against England earlier this year. He is a much-improved bowler now than he was during IPL 2016 and at the ICC World Twenty20 2016. But what Kohli and the Indian team management also have to take into account is Pandya’s role as a bowler. Is he going to use one of the two new balls, or will he operate during the middle overs?
Unless you’re playing only five batsmen along with five bowlers, you cannot pick Pandya for his batting. Because then, you are essentially playing only four bowlers and the fifth bowler quota has to be shared by Hardik, Yuvraj Singh if he plays and Kedar Jadhav.
Picking Pandya is a gamble and on the flip side, selecting Ashwin is a safer option for the clash against Pakistan and even beyond Sunday. Team India should be happy with the plethora of options that they are now in a position to choose from, but they need to be careful in dealing with this particular selection problem. Defining their ideal No. 7 will go a long way towards picking the right player.
Other than this selection call, the team management also has to decide whether Yuvraj Singh, who has not batted in a competitive match for close to three weeks, should be picked in the playing XI against Pakistan. Dinesh Karthik made a case for himself by scoring 94 against Bangladesh on Tuesday and Yuvraj is still recovering from a viral fever. He has not had a hit in either of India’s practice matches and might well be rusty.
Taking these factors into account, here is India’s probable playing XI for this Sunday’s clash against Pakistan: 1. Virat Kohli (c), 2. Rohit Sharma, 3. Shikhar Dhawan, 4. Yuvraj Singh/Dinesh Karthik, 5. MS Dhoni (wk), 6. Kedar Jadhav, 7. Ravindra Jadeja, 8. Hardik Pandya/Ravichandran Ashwin, 9. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 10. Mohammed Shami, and 11. Umesh Yadav/Jasprit Bumrah