India are being drummed up as favourites for the World Cup later this year, on the back of their formidable top order and a lethal bowling attack that features two match-winning wristspinners. With the tournament less than four months away, India's selectors are busy working out which 15 players will offer the side the right balance. On the back of the Asia Cup win, followed by victories in the ODI series in Australia and New Zealand recently, most positions seem taken, barring a couple.
The chairman of the selection panel, former India wicketkeeper MSK Prasad, talks about the World Cup line-up, and how the team now has impressive bench strength in the Test arena.
India have registered convincing victories against Australia and New Zealand in ODIs. Do you think the 15 spots for the World Cup are sealed?
Yes, I do. Maybe one spot might go to the last minute, otherwise we are very clear about the rest. The reason behind that one-odd spot still being open is due to the new dimension that has come up after the performance of some of the players in Australia and New Zealand. That is the reason we are saying that maybe one spot needs to be sealed. We might do that after the upcoming home series against Australia.
You recently said that the planning for the World Cup began after the 2017 Champions Trophy. What were the areas that you identified that needed to be addressed by the time of picking the final 15?
We had done extremely well in the Champions Trophy, having reached the final. But the selection panel felt the spin department needed more variety. [R] Ashwin and [Ravindra] Jadeja had delivered, but we still felt we needed to add variety to the attack. That is how [Yuzvendra] Chahal and Kuldeep [Yadav] came in. The results are there to see: together they have won 70% of the matches they have played in. They have sharpened and strengthened the bowling department.
What made you to go for two wristspinners?
The pitches in England were hard and bouncy, which is likely again during the World Cup. We felt the wristspinner can have more of a say on such pitches than a fingerspinner.
Last summer India lost the ODI series in England 2-1. With less than a year to go to the World Cup at the time, what were the areas that needed to be addressed?
The middle order was one area of concern. But now, after the series in Australia and New Zealand, we feel we have filled the spots in the middle order. I am very happy the players we brought in to address that concern have done well and delivered. Whatever the shortcomings were, they have been dealt with.
By middle order you mean No. 4 and 5, presumably. Ambati Rayudu and Dinesh Karthik, along with MS Dhoni have been identified to perform the No. 4 role. The soft underbelly of the Indian middle order was exposed in the absence of Virat Kohli and Dhoni in the Hamilton ODI by Trent Boult. Do you think Rayudu and Karthik have cleared the concerns?
I can't talk about individuals, but we are happy with the men we picked for the middle-order slots.
What was it about Rayudu that made the selectors feel he can deliver?
We needed solidity in the middle order. We tried a few players but were not convinced with their performances in that No. 4 spot. We wanted someone experienced and a bit of a mature head. Rayudu had done well in the last IPL, and despite that being T20, we included him in the ODI squad for the England series as we felt he could do well at No. 4. He has done reasonably well in the opportunities and convinced everyone that he is the guy.
Rishabh Pant is spoken of highly by fans due to his style and form last year. What does he offer to the ODI set-up that makes him a contender for a World Cup berth?
His progress in the last one year has been phenomenal across formats. We felt he needs a bit of maturity now, to gain more experience. That is reason we have included him in India A series wherever possible. The hundred he got in the Sydney Test, the 73 he got for India A on a testing pitch against England Lions recently speaks of his maturity. Against the Lions, India A were struggling, and everybody thought they had lost the match, but Rishabh showed skill and patience to win the match.
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So Pant is in contention for the World Cup?
Undoubtedly he is in contention.
But if you include him, you might have to leave out a bowler or even an allrounder.
That is something we need to figure out. A year ago we were struggling with quite a few slots, but now that we have exposed certain players and they have delivered, they have left us with so many happy and healthy choices. We just need to strike a good balance between experience and youthful exuberance. At times we need those characters who can play the fearless sorts of innings required at this level. Finding the right balance is the key, and picking the right combination.
You said the performances of some of the players in Australia and New Zealand have added a new dimension to selection for World Cup. Is Vijay Shankar one of the players who impressed you?
Definitely. In whatever opportunities he has got, Vijay Shankar has shown the skillsets required at this level. We have been grooming him through India A tours in the last two years. But we will have to see where he can fit in the dynamics of this team.
Kohli has pointed out that allrounders add depth to the team and give various options in terms of combinations. Does Shankar give you another option for the allrounder spot?
We have four good allrounders to choose from: Hardik Pandya, Kedar Jadhav, Ravindra Jadeja and Vijay Shankar. They obviously add depth in both bowling and batting. But we have to look at the team balance, we cannot pick all four. How many we pick in the World Cup squad will depend on the various permutations and combinations.
It is not an easy job, is it, selection?
It is not. A year ago we could have picked a team just like that. But now if you see, even a guy like Krunal Pandya, he has delivered. That adds a new dimension to the discussion.
Other than fearlessness, what are the other characteristics that you look for in a player before picking him for a tournament like a World Cup?
You need players with maturity. You need players with a balanced head. If you look at the Indian World Cup squad in 2011, there was a good mix of youngsters and seniors. You had Virat, who had just come up in the international circuit. You had Sreesanth, who was still young. That was balanced with the experienced players like Sachin [Tendulkar] and [Virender] Sehwag. Even in the 1983 World Cup, the Indian squad was a good mix of experience and young guys.
One man who has that maturity, experience, level-headedness and fearlessness is Dhoni. He turns 38 in July - when he is likely to be playing his fourth World Cup. He is an integral part of the leadership group. But there have been several occasions where his batting has come into question in the last year or so, mainly due to the expectations a great player like him carries on his back due to his past deeds. How do you look at his position?
The way Mahi has played in the last couple of series, in Australia and New Zealand, the message is very, very clear: now he has decided to play his natural way. This is the Dhoni that we know. We will be very happy if he can replicate those fearless knocks, using that brutal force he has within him. At some point, perhaps because of shortage of match time, he might have been short of runs. But now that he is playing continuously, you can see his touch once again.
Also, importantly, before India head to the World Cup, he will be playing the IPL. So he will be playing in 14-16 matches - all high-intensity games. That will only help him extend that form he has caught on the Australia and New Zealand tours. I am very happy with his batting.
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In the Lord's ODI last year, Dhoni was booed by fans for going at a slow tempo. Kohli explained later that Dhoni had to take the game deep, considering India had lost the top-order batsmen. That incident coincided with a phase in which Dhoni was struggling to find fluency as a batsman. Was there any concern about his position in the team then?
There are two aspects about Dhoni: one is his wicketkeeping and the other is his batting. We have never had any doubts about his wicketkeeping. With regards to his batting, we were a bit worried about his form. But we also knew that if he played more, he would regain his form, and that is part of the any player's career - there are dips in form and performances.
As Virat said, and I agree, the expectations on Mahi are so high. We always associate Mahi with that brutal batsman of his younger days. And the moment he does not do that, some people feel his reflexes have declined. But the way he has prepared and the way he has played in the recent series, I am very happy. Players of that legendary stature don't need to be told. They know what is expected of them. They will obviously feel bad in case they do not deliver what is expected of them.
Does he remain a match-winner?
Undoubtedly. He is going to be the most important guy for India in the World Cup: be it in his advisory role to Virat, be it with his wicketkeeping, be it with is on-field mentoring of young players…
Last November Dhoni was not picked for the T20 series against West Indies and then in Australia, leading to speculation about his future. What happened there?
He definitely was not dropped. I personally spoke to Dhoni and the team management. I told them we needed to identify the second wicketkeeper for the World Cup. So we wanted to give some game time to both Karthik and Rishabh, and that is why they played those six T20Is.
Dhoni has decided not to represent Jharkhand, so that he does not deprive a youngster of the chance. Has he given an indication about whether the World Cup will be the last time he will play for India?
We have definitely not discussed this. Because prior to such a big tournament, I do not think it is wise to get distracted, since all energies are geared towards preparing well for the World Cup.
For the one or two spots that you want to firm up, will your panel go by IPL form?
I do not think so, only because we have already made up our minds. We will only be observing the performances of the players we think should be in the squad and the list of stand-byes. We have rounded up on 20 players. We will follow the form of these players.
Since you took charge in September 2016 India have played 131 matches across the three formats and won 89. Their win-loss ratio of 2.69 is significantly higher than the other teams. You must feel happy your panel has played a role in that success. In what way do you think the selectors have contributed?
Firstly, I would like to point out the commitment of all five selectors. We all have gone to the nooks and corners of India to pick talent and supplied it to India A, which is coached by Rahul Dravid. We have a think tank, which I call the consortium, comprising Dravid, the senior selectors, and the Indian team management, led by Ravi [Shastri] and Virat. Very often this group sits and monitors the progress of players from the domestic formats to the next level. Alongside every big tour overseas we plan a shadow tour of India A. In South Africa, England and Australia, India A teams played shadow tours.
Unfortunately, the series results in South Africa and England may not speak the truth of the real contest. It was touch and go. If we had won in Cape Town, Edgbaston and Southampton, the results column would have been completely different. Importantly, the planning that goes behind series has been fantastic. It is not only about doing well in Australia and New Zealand, it is also about building bench strength.
If you see the players that we have picked from the domestic to the India A, and from India A to the national team, the way they have played - Rishabh Pant, Prithvi Shaw, Hanuma Vihari, Mayank Agarwal - they never showed they were out of sorts or overawed. The way these players have performed and progressed, I give a lot of credit to the consortium.
Can you speak about the selection of Jasprit Bumrah into the Test line-up?
A lot of people spoke about Bumrah only as a white-ball cricketer. People said with his action Bumrah would be prone to injuries. But the consortium thought that we needed somebody like him in overseas Test series in South Africa, England and Australia, because we knew what lengths he hits and what pace he bowls, which would come in handy overseas. So he was put under a strict fitness regime. Credit to that boy - he has really worked hard. He has got stronger now. He has delivered in the three overseas Test series.
Who took the call to get him into Tests - the team management or selectors?
The selection committee and team management thought he would be an X-factor in Test cricket too. The selectors saw Bumrah against Jharkhand in the Ranji Trophy semi-final in 2017-18. Jharkhand had taken the lead, but Bumrah bowled an unbelievable spell in the second innings to take a six-for. That gave us the confidence to push him to the Test level.
Pant was the other recent out-of-the-box selection. Can you talk about the thought process in picking him during the England series last year despite him not being the finished product as a wicketkeeper?
Pant, as I already said, is a phenomenal batsman. He has delivered also. He made 1000-plus runs in his first Ranji season and he has proved himself in the IPL also, where he has been a big revelation. As far as his wicketkeeping skills go, he is a work in progress; he has to go through the grind still. But in whatever matches he has played, he has shown glimpses of becoming a good wicketkeeper.
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Before the home Test series against West Indies last year we sent him to the National Cricket Academy to work with [former wicketkeepers] Kiran More and Abhay Sharma. Rishabh kept really well in the series and he has showed progress. I never thought in such a short span of time he would mature so well. We thought he is a thick-skinned guy, but he has proved he is not that, and he is happy to work hard to meet the requirements needed to play at the highest level.
Succession planning is part of a selection panel's responsibilities. Do you reckon India now have a back-up for the Test players?
Absolutely. I can tell you we have another set of fast bowlers who can bowl at 145kph, who are ready if given the opportunity. Mohammed Siraj, Navdeep Saini, Avesh Khan and others are really doing well. The future of Indian fast bowling is bright - we have enough bench strength for the next six-seven years.
Even in batting, Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, Shubman Gill, Hanuma Vihari and Rishabh have already been promoted. We are now focusing in grooming another four people to move to the next level. So we have enough bench strength to say that we have one more Test team in the offing. Credit should go to both the selection committee and Dravid and his team at India A.
With Shaw, Agarwal and Vihari proving they have the temperament to sustain their game at the highest level, do you reckon senior players, specifically M Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan, will need to prove themselves again.
No, I don't think it puts any sort of pressure on both those players. It only will bring the best out of them. Our purpose is to prepare the bench strength. In the past, too, many great players, when dropped, went back to domestic cricket, made plenty of runs and made a comeback. For those people who are willing to go back and work hard and perform, the gates are always open. When VVS Laxman was dropped, he went back and made 1400-plus runs [in domestic cricket] and made a comeback. So if there is an opportunity, they can always make a comeback.
Your panel has believed in giving a long rope to young players. KL Rahul has got that, but his form has dwindled. At what point did it become a concern?
In England he could have done well. I was very disappointed when he failed against West Indies at home. But with his style of play we thought he would definitely do well in Australia because he had done well on the previous tour [2014-15] there, and pace and bounce suit his game better. Unfortunately he did not deliver. It is a definitely a cause of concern. Having said that, he is a class act and he is just a good knock away. That is why we have put him in the India A team currently playing the England Lions. [Rahul scored 89 against England Lions the day this interview was conducted.]
All of us have confidence him. Take that century in the Manchester T20. He is a batsman of supreme class. He has definitely failed in red-ball cricket, but you cannot look at red-ball form in white-ball cricket. That is what we as selectors ought to consider. Also he has had limited opportunities to play in ODIs owing to the good form of the regular opening pair of Rohit [Sharma] and Shikhar. Even in the Asia Cup, he sat out. That did not help him. So not only was he was failing in Test cricket, the majority of the time he was sitting out in white-ball cricket. So that failure got magnified.
Is he part of the World Cup deliberations?
Of course, he is definitely part of the conversation, but we expect him to get runs if he has to make a comeback.
Let us talk about Ajinkya Rahane, the Indian Test vice-captain. He has gone without a century for an extended period, though he has played some impressive knocks in that time. Does that bother you?
Not really. I was a bit concerned during the England Test series, but he did well in Australia. Even in domestic cricket, he has been in form. He is very much in contention for the World Cup.
What I mean to say is, he has not been ruled out. We want to see how he does in the near future.
I am sure the runs that he got in Australia in a winning cause will give him confidence. In Test cricket Ajinkya is one of the most important players for India. He gives solidity in the middle order.
After he was dropped in the first two Tests during the South Africa tour last year, Rahane said he wanted to come back as a hero in the Johannesburg Test. Can you understand his feelings?
Ajinkya is a thorough gentleman. That is why everybody respects him. He is very cool and composed and a likeable guy. I know it was tough for him personally to be dropped in the first two Tests in South Africa. But more than numbers, form also counts a lot. People can always point out why was he dropped, but the team management understands the mindset of the player, his form - the factors that count while picking a player for a match. Prior to the South Africa Test series his form was not great.
There was no hidden agenda. The team management would have factored in the form and the combination they wanted to go with, and they had to take some tough calls.
In England last year he got 81 in Nottingham, got a good half-century in Southampton. It will be nice if he can convert knocks like that into bigger scores. But I am not much worried about his place as such. He is key to India's success, especially overseas, where he has a terrific record.
One other senior player who has not featured consistently in the Test team, primarily due to injury, is Ashwin. How do you look at his future, especially in overseas Tests?
He is not just any spinner, he is a legendary spinner. He is our No. 1 Test spinner. I do understand injuries hampered him during the England and Australia series, but he is playing round the year and he is bound to get injured. Mere injuries cannot take away the place that he deserves. I still feel he has got so much to offer to the Indian team.
Recently Ravi Shastri said Kuldeep Yadav would be India's primary choice as lead spinner in overseas Tests.
Whenever Kuldeep has been given the opportunity in Tests, he has done well. He adds a lot of variety to our bowling attack. Having said, that he is still a player in the making. I agree with what Ravi said - that he is going to be part of the scheme of things both home and away, but we have to see how he progresses because he is playing in all three formats, so we need to be careful.
So you are not closing the door on Ashwin as the premier spinner, especially in overseas Tests?
There is no doubt that he is still our No. 1 spinner. Having said that, whenever Jadeja and Kuldeep have been given the opportunity, they have delivered. But that cannot take away credit from what Ashwin is - he is very much an important part of the Indian Test team, be it home or away. That is because of his sheer class. I feel he remains the key. Just like we have a good bench strength in fast bowling group, we now have a solid trio of spinners.
Wriddhiman Saha has not played since the South Africa tour. At the time when you picked squads for the one-off Test against Afghanistan and then for the England Test series there seemed to be confusion over his injury and rehab, which led to the BCCI issuing an unprecedented medical bulletin about his injury status.
The selection committee never committed any mistake concerning Saha. The selection committee was spot-on, but subsequently he developed some other problems, [details of] which was put out by BCCI. We were very clear about him. We follow the report that is put out by the Indian physiotherapist.
Saha was the No. 1 wicketkeeper prior to getting injured. He has not played any [first-class] cricket since the South Africa tour. He is currently at the NCA, doing rehab, and has started practising. He is likely to be fit in a month.
Do you need him to play some cricket so you can figure out his future?
The next Test series that India will play is in July. So we have some time. When Saha got injured, we gave the opportunity to Rishabh. He has done extremely well, beyond everybody's expectations. Having said that, you cannot take away somebody who was the No. 1 wicketkeeper. Saha is definitely in the scheme of things in Test cricket.
Do you have any suggestions for the young lot of batsmen that have recently come into the Indian Test team?
Prithvi has an abundance of talent, but most importantly he needs to take care of his body. He needs to take a leaf out of his captain Virat's book - the way he has shaped his life and career. Fitness will be key for Prithvi's future.
As for Vihari, he is a technically solid and sound batsman. He has a fantastic domestic record. His strength is his temperament, similar to that of Cheteshwar Pujara. He plays long innings, like Pujara, but he has few more strokes. Now that he has played a bit of Test cricket he needs to encash the starts he gets.
The World Test Championships starts after the World Cup. How well placed are India? Any key areas that need to be addressed in order for the team to take maximum points in the six series they will play in the first cycle?
Being the No.1 Test side we will enter the Championship as a favourite. The only area where we need to focus on is, we need to bat well. We have the bowling strength to beat any side on any surface in the world, home or away. This is a fit team, so we need to just bat well.