Shami deserves the world and the cup but Rohit shouldn't be blamed for not picking him initially
Despite Shami's achievements, Rohit and the Indian team management should not be blamed for benching him in the initial phase of World Cup 2023.
In Rohit Sharma's captaincy, a proven cricketer is never out of reckoning. Ask Ravichandran Ashwin, who made a comeback to play the T20 World Cup in Australia and then, despite not playing an ODI for six years, was straightaway drafted into the World Cup 2023 squad after an injury to Axar Patel. Or look at Mohammed Shami. He was told his services were no longer required in T20s after the World Cup in UAE in 2021. But about 10 months later, he was India's lead pacer in the next edition of the World Cup after Jasprit Bumrah was ruled out. Throw in Ajinkya Rahane and Umesh Yadav in that category too. Rahane was picked for the World Test Championship final after not being considered for more than a year.
Rohit always banks on experience. He was asked about the same when he handed a T20I comeback to Umesh for the home series against Australia in 2022. "Guys like Umesh and Shami don't need match-practice for a particular format. They have been doing the same thing for years. They can turn up and provide the goods," was his reply.
How can the same captain bench Shami for the first four matches of the World Cup? Shami was the most experienced pacer in India's World Cup squad and was a man in form with 19 wickets in 12 outings and a five-wicket haul as recent as two weeks before the ICC event. With that unmatchable seam position, the control with the new ball, and the yorkers at the death; Shami is a captain's dream in ODI cricket. Rohit was not unaware of any of that.
He very well knew what destruction Shami could do when on song. And boy has he been on song ever since getting a chance in the XI from the New Zealand match in the group stage. He has picked up 23 wickets in just six matches, broken multiple records, scaled new heights and above all, emerged as not only India's most impactful bowler but also for many, the most impactful bowler of the tournament.
The right-arm pacer from Uttar Pradesh has registered three five-wicket hauls in his six outings in the World Cup. In the last match, the high-scoring semi-final against New Zealand, Shami became the first Indian bowler to pick up a seven-wicket haul in ODIs. He was also the quickest to reach 50 World Cup wickets in just 17 innings.
Now that Shami has done all this, India's decision to bench him for the first half of the tournament seems even more harsh. Or does it? Shami deserves a place in the India XI nine out of 10 times. But the World Cup was the odd occasion and Rohit was right in his thinking.
Why Rohit was not wrong in benching Shami for the first half of World Cup 2023
Despite all his experience and track record, Shami was not among India's two best pacers. Yes, that's how good a pace attack India have. The top spot was reserved for Jasprit Bumrah and with the kind of performance that Siraj dished out, claiming more wickets than any other pacer in the current calendar year, it was impossible to ignore him. And Rohit did not have the option of playing Shami as the third seamer. His hands were tied. The reason? None among Bumrah, Shami, and Siraj can be trusted with the bat.
Leading into the World Cup, it was quite clear that Kuldeep Yadav would be India's lead spinner. With a batting average of 10 and a strike rate of 53, he was not going to be the solution to India's long tail problem. Hence, Rohit had to look at a third seamer who could bat a bit. And the best option was Shardul Thakur.
Despite being a less threatening bowler than Shami, India went with Shardul as their No.8 because they had Hardik Pandya to share the load of an extra seamer. Why do you need someone to bat at No.8, you ask? Look no further than the second semi-final between Australia and South Africa for the answer. Australia lost Steve Smith when they still needed 39 runs to win. The Eden Gardens pitch was offering a lot to both pacers and spinners. if it wasn't for a solid No.8 in Mitchell Starc, Australia could have had to pack their bags and go home. Starc and Pat Cummins handled everything thrown at them quite calmly to take Australia to victory with three wickets in hand.
Cummins also played a pivotal role while coming in to bat at No.8 in Australia's run-chase against Afghanistan where Glenn Maxwell smashed a historic double century. If it wasn't for the Australian captain's assured batting at the other end, it would have been very difficult for Maxwell to go for his shots.
Rohit wanted that assurance at No.8. He didn't want to be in a situation where the last four wickets of India could not even be trusted to add 40 runs. His best option at No.8 was to pick someone who could offer something with the bat and also give valuable overs with the ball. There was only Shardul who could do that as a seam-bowling option.
The situation, however, changed drastically when Pandya suffered an ankle injury. India now did not have the cushion of an extra seamer. What did Rohit do? He immediately fell back to Shami, the better bowler. Now, he could not afford to gamble with an iffy third seamer. He needed someone like Shami who could be banked not only to bowl 10 overs regularly but also to pick up wickets.
The experienced pacer repaid the faith with back-to-back match-winning performances. Now, as India gear up to put an end to their ICC trophy drought, the fans would hope for another Shami-show in Ahmedabad against Australia in the big final but they should not blame Rohit and the Indian team management for benching him in the initial phase of the tournament.
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