After being ignored for the England Tests, all eyes will be on Prithvi Shaw for the Sri Lanka series. (Getty Images)
After being ignored for the England Tests, all eyes will be on Prithvi Shaw for the Sri Lanka series. (Getty Images)

Uncapped players display the bench strength of India

  • Even with India’s top stars playing England, selectors will be able to field some exciting talent vs Sri Lanka.
By Sanjjeev K Samyal, Mumbai
UPDATED ON MAY 14, 2021 12:19 PM IST

Writing a column in the Sydney Morning Herald after India’s series win in Australia in January, Greg Chappell had warned the cricket world of what they are up against: “For those of you who were surprised that India could deal with all that was thrown at them in this series, and could hold their nerve and win in such courageous fashion, I say: you better get used to it. Don’t worry about India becoming the best team - they are already capable of producing the best five teams in world cricket!”

Chappell’s words may be proven right yet again this summer when India will be in a position to put out two strong teams for two different series at the same time, in July. While a 24-member Test squad, including four reserves, will be on tour to the UK, the India selectors will still have an embarrassment of riches to choose from for a tour of Sri Lanka for three ODIs and three T20s.

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With Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill and Rishabh Pant on Test duty, the white-ball series will be chosen from a batting pool of Shikhar Dhawan, Prithvi Shaw, Sanju Samson, Suryakumar Yadav, Devdutt Padikkal, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Manish Pandey and Ishan Kishan. Despite all the first-choice bowlers - Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Shardul Thakur, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja - on duty in England, India will still be able to field an enviable bowling unit in Sri Lanka, led by Bhuvneshwar Kumar and supported by Navdeep Saini, Deepak Chahar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Harshal Patel, Chetan Sakariya and Rahul Chahar.

Rookies shone in Australia

In Australia, the superlative performances from India’s debutants formed the central plot of a cricketing blockbuster - the likes of Mohammed Siraj, Washington Sundar, Shardul Thakur and T Natarajan dropped into the deep end and fighting back like slick veterans and dragging India to the shore. Some of these players have burst forth via a breakthrough IPL season, and some from the long grind of domestic cricket (some, like Harshal Patel are a combination of both).

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The 2021 IPL, suspended midway, had already served as a platform to showcase new talent who may earn their India caps soon. Harshal and young pacer Avesh Khan were the top two wicket-takers with 17 and 14 respectively. Both are uncapped, while Harshal is in line for selection for Sri Lanka, Avesh is already selected as a reserve bowler in the Test squad. Young left-arm pacers Chetan Sakariya and Arshdeep Singh were brilliant under pressure for Rajasthan Royals and Punjab Kings respectively, bowling their crucial overs in the tournament. Another rookie, Punjab Kings’ left-arm spinner Harpreet Brar, had a sensational start to the season with a three-wicket match-winning haul against Royal Challengers Bangalore by prizing out Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers. He has four wickets in two matches at an economy rate of 5.42.

Young guns fired in IPL

After a slow start, Ruturaj Gaikwad (196 runs, 7 innings) has been explosive for Chennai Super Kings, forming a formidable opening combination with Faf du Plessis. When the season started, Khan was seen as a back-up option for Ishant Sharma. As it happened, the India fast bowler missed the opening few games due to a heel niggle and Delhi Capitals’ coach Ricky Ponting was highly impressed by how Avesh grabbed the opportunity to become a key member of the DC attack.

“He (Khan) has been one of our finds and if you got an Indian fast bowler like him and the likes of (Chris) Woakes, (Kagiso) Rabada, (Anrich) Nortje and Tom Curran around we end up with a really strong fast bowling brigade,” Ponting said during IPL. “Physically he looks a little bit better, he lost some weight from last season. He is definitely fitter and bowling faster. Without a little bit of extra fitness on his side, he is able to maintain his action better. His lines and lengths and slower ball execution is excellent so far.”

Former New Zealand captain and now CSK coach Stephen Fleming called Gaikwad “another fine Indian talent” after watching three of his innings, full of sublime shots - 64 vs KKR, 33 vs RCB and 75 versus SRH.

Giving an insight into how Indian domestic players are benefitting from IPL, Harshal, who is an IPL veteran now, said: “These guys (the coaching staff of IPL teams) are very accessible, you can just pick your phone up and talk to them about any issue you are facing whether it’s a trainer or a physio, batting or a bowling coach. They will never say no to any of your requests. That was the case even when I was at Delhi, even with RCB they have been exceptionally accommodating. If you are willing to ask for help, they will help you.”

IPL teams go through a gruelling month-long preparatory camp ahead of the season and franchises also try and have smaller camps throughout the year. “I have gone to DC’s high-performance centre for my rehab even in the middle of the (Ranji) season. Even my ankle injury (suffered during his state team Haryana’s camp this season) was treated by DC’s assistant physio whom I have a good rapport with,” said Patel. “At the end of the day, they all have that feeling you are contributing to Indian cricket, no matter which franchise you play for.”

Mumbai Indians have set up a state-of-the-art facility at Navi Mumbai where they focus on developing their young players. On how the coaching work is actually done in IPL, MI’s chief bowling coach Shane Bond said: “We don’t have a lot of time (during IPL). A lot of the work I do is around game plan stuff, the technical side of the game, making sure when the boys come for training they practice specific skills, put the ball in the areas we want to put them. We are very calm and clear about what we want them to do because when you are under pressure in the IPL bowling to AB de Villiers’ or Jos Buttler, you have to be really calm and clear.”

Till the start of the 2021 season, Harshal’s opportunities were limited to a few games every season. He was a back-up option. But at RCB this season, from the first game onwards, he was earmarked to bowl at the death. “Most of the teams have started looking at how the bowlers are doing in the practice matches and at practice, and how good they are in execution, regardless of what their stature is, whether they are capped or uncapped players or international. It is a good trend that people have realised that even uncapped players are good enough to take responsibilities of death bowling. I see more of that in the IPL,” said Patel.

Sakariya makes a point

Another icy death bowler this season has been the debutant Sakariya, whose father died due to Covid-19 this week. Sakariya comes from a low-income family - his father drove a small transport vehicle - and has seen plenty of tragedy this year with his brother also dying by suicide earlier this year. Despite the heartbreaking challenges, he finished as one of the top wicket-takers in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, and was bought by Rajasthan Royals for 1.2 crores at the auction.

Five months ago, Sakariya had travelled with the Royal Challengers Bangalore team to the UAE as a net bowler. It was his first opportunity at bowling to the finest batsmen in the world, the likes of Kohli and de Villiers. From his own experience, Patel explained the difference it makes when you get to bowl to batsmen like that: “Every time you bowl to them you realise that the margin of error is very little and that makes you more and more concise in your execution. When you execute against these guys it gives you a lot of confidence that if you can do it against these guys, then you can do it in any game situation.”

Surendra Bhave, the former Maharashtra opener and national selector, pointed to changing motivations as well as greater access to fitness protocols as a major factor in the formation of this deep talent pool.

“The inputs the modern cricketers are getting are amazing, they understand the system very well,” Bhave said. “If you are not motivated, you can’t do fitness, so both are corelated.”

Bhave himself could have experienced a different career trajectory if he were playing now - he finished with a first-class average of 58.18 from 97 matches (1986 to 2001) but never played for India. “My generation and the generations before me, money hadn’t arrived,” Bhave said. “We were the kind of players who actually worked in the bank and played Ranji Trophy. The basic difference now is that without being in the Indian team you can make a very viable career. You have the unbelievably rewarding IPL, and you can also earn 15 to 20 lakhs in a Ranji season.”

Most importantly what we are seeing is the increased self-belief in uncapped players that they are as good as anybody. There was no self-doubt when Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur walked out to bat on their Test debuts in a high-pressure situation in the deciding match at Brisbane in January. On their way to scoring critical half-centuries, they faced Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc as if they were playing domestic bowlers.

“For some of the players in the past, the gap was too much and when they played their first Test match, they realised ‘oh, this is a different class, I probably don’t belong here,’” Bhave said. “Once the player gets that feeling, he finds it tough to play at the international level. That gap has been bridged by India A and the IPL.”

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