India’s tour of West Indies: Shubman Gill was ideal vice-captain instead of comeback man Ajinkya Rahane

India’s upcoming tour to the West Indies can be termed, in cricketing parlance, as a ‘free hit’ for the national selectors. The dismal standard of the team from the Caribbean, in contrast to what was seen in their heyday, make it a great opportunity to experiment and test out youngsters. Whoever is fielded in the two Tests, anything less than a 2-0 series triumph is highly unlikely, unless weather intervenes drastically. Given that the significance of series against West Indies and Bangladesh is below that of the IPL, at least in the eyes of the stakeholders in Indian cricket, it also allows giving the big guns – especially those who feature in multiple formats and are expected to shoulder a heavy burden in the months to come – a break.

However, Indian selectors are generally risk-averse, and given the players selected for the Caribbean sojourn, one wonders whether the wise men have failed to address the medium-term issues confronting them.

Ajinkya Rahane’s comeback to India colours is just one Test old. And though he was the most successful Indian batsman in the World Test Championship final at The Oval, making him vice-captain for the next Test series seems like a knee-jerk reaction. A bad series in the Caribbean can easily see him out of the team again. Though he has led India with distinction in the past, it seems a decision taken while looking into a rear-view mirror. With Rahane past 35 years of age, Gill could have been a better choice as vice-captain, or even captain if Rohit was rested.

Were big guns needed?

The Test squad selected isn’t much different, apart from a few new names, than what would have been picked for a series against a much stronger opposition. Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Shubman Gill and Mohammed Siraj will be licking their lips at the prospect of some easy runs and wickets. All of them, with the possible exception of Ashwin, are certainties for the 50-over World Cup later this year. An injury on a low-key tour can be disastrous, when the next chance to end the decade-long drought in major ICC silverware comes in a white-ball tournament.

Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli. (File)

What next for Pujara?

He didn’t have the best of games against the Australians, but the selectors have had to call Cheteshwar Pujara back earlier too after considering him surplus to requirements. If the other seniors who have been struggling in Tests of late manage to score some easy runs in the Caribbean, Pujara may well feel hard done by. If the going gets tough on a dicey pitch, he is still the one Indian batsman who can be expected to hang in there for a long time. But it’s not the first time that Pujara has suffered due to the selectors’ impatience and their failure to address the lack of returns from the bigger names.
Pujara is India’s second highest-run-getter in the WTC cycle (2021-23). His 928 runs is just four short of Kohli’s 932. Kohli’s strike rate is . just marginally better at 45.53, compared to Pujara’s 42.58.

Why Ruturaj over Sarfaraz/Easwaran?

Selecting a squad is not just a numbers game. It’s about judging a player and what he can deliver at a higher level. Ruturaj Gaikwad and Yashasvi Jaiswal made heads turn in the recent IPL season, but getting into the Test squad on the strength of performances in the 20-over format would make some traditionalists squirm. Jaiswal, at least, has an average above 80 from 15 first-class games, but Gaikwad has made 1,941 runs from 28 games at just over 42 – figures that can only be termed ‘decent’.
In contrast, Sarfaraz Khan has been breaking records in the Ranji Trophy over the past few seasons, but still can’t get a look-in. Easwaran has also spent a long apprenticeship, but both were found to be lacking a bit when it came to taking the next step up. Sarfaraz was found out by extra pace and short-pitched stuff in the IPL, while Easwaran didn’t impress the team management enough when he was part of the national squad.

Even then, selecting someone for the Test team based on what they have done in IPL is a big leap of faith.

Why Mukesh, Unadkat?

He was often used as an Impact Substitute by Delhi Capitals in the IPL, coming on to bowl an over or two at the death. Mukesh Kumar’s selection seems to be a reward for sweating it out and delivering in domestic cricket. An average of 21.55 and 149 scalps in 39 first-class games shows that he knows what he is doing. But the 29-year-old is neither blessed with extra pace nor bounce to make an instant impact at the international level.

Jaydev Unadkat suffered a freak injury during the IPL, but still made it to the squad for the WTC final without ever threatening to make the playing XI. His two Test appearances have come 12 years apart without setting the stage alight. He is tall but not quick and apart from the left-armer’s angle, doesn’t bring much to the table. The Saurashtra captain has been a stalwart of domestic cricket, and has prompted some intense bidding at IPL auctions, but if he had to make an impact at the top level, he would have done so by now.

Someone like Umran Malik could have provided the required x-factor with his lightning pace. He wasn’t handled properly at Sunrisers Hyderabad but with even a few wayward overs not likely to cost the team a Test in the West Indies, it could have been an opportunity to see what he is about.

Why rest for Shami?

The selectors seem to have run out of patience with Umesh Yadav again, but in giving Mohammed Shami a break, they may be protecting their prize asset looking ahead to the 50-over World Cup. The veteran pacer failed to make full use of helpful conditions in the WTC final, but with Jasprit Bumrah’s return from a long injury lay-off shrouded in uncertainty, Shami is likely to be the leader of the pace pack when the marquee event comes calling. The scenario questions the notion of great depth in India’s pace bowling reserves and also points a finger at injury management.

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