What they talk about when they talk about team selection?

Shajin Mohanan S
07 Jan 2022
New Update
What they talk about when they talk about team selection?

(L to R) Jhulan Goswami, Shikha Pandey, Meghna Singh, Renuka Singh Thakur © Getty Images / Women's CricZone

The phase that immediately follows the World Cup is an odd place to be for teams that just played in it. It doesn't matter whether you are Australia, England or India. Until then they would have been building towards the global events, using various tactics, permutations and combinations. Their turn at the tournament already has told them the outcomes of those strategies. It’s the time for the champions to celebrate, sit back and relax, while the favourites who fell by the wayside lick their wounds and wonder where things went wrong. But regardless of where you finished, it’s also time to think about the future.

That doesn’t mean you discard the 15 that went to the tournament and start afresh for there are games to be won in the present even as they build towards the next big event. You can’t pick a new side and hope them to last entire World Cup cycle without any tribulations. Former India men skipper MS Dhoni talked about giving players 50 games between two global events to make sure that they are experienced enough when the time comes. But that’s not possible in women’s cricket for they don’t get to play that many matches. Sometimes you might find an exceptional talent right near to the World Cup and you wouldn’t mind throwing her straight into the global stage. It’s all about being perceptive and keeping a balance between the present and the future.

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When the Cricket World Cup 2017 ended, all the teams that were in action must have faced these questions. They may or may not have started building their next set of champion cricketers that can go and have a shout at the global glory. India - who had a runners-up finish and experienced unexpected popularity - were so perplexed by the outcome of the seminal event that 2017 was, they didn’t do anything for more than six months before they returned to international cricket in February 2018.

COVID-19 pandemic that wreaked havoc through the world meant the World Cup that was scheduled to be played in New Zealand 2021 was postponed by a year to 2022 and now that’s it’s almost here, on Thursday (January 6), India became the first country to name their 15 plus the three stand-by (A byproduct of the pandemic that’s still hiding in plain sight and the strict quarantine measures that are in place in the host nation) players for the global event. All the teams got that extra one year to build the teams - to find that exceptionally talented prodigy, to give more match time to the bowling attack, to find backup support for the veterans in the line-up, to plug the holes – depending on their strength that will allow them to dream of that silverware.

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Did India manage to give the 18 they selected a fair run going into the World Cup? Did they find apt replacements for those who have been left out from the squad that almost won the last edition? Did they give Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami enough supporting cast to lead the side to glory on what’s probably going to be their swansong? How did they end up with a pace-bowling attack that has a collective experience of 13 ODIs among three of their four members? We don’t have any answers, for we haven’t been provided with any. So we will have to do with our psychobabble, past selection patterns, and the available numbers to make sense of it.

This is not to argue about the selection or non-selection of any of the players. All those selected have done the hard yards to be there and points to the depth (which might pivot to lack of depth argument depending on the outcome at the global stage) India have in their ranks when it comes to at least the ODIs. India enjoyed a golden run in the format from 2018 to 2019 losing only one series – that was against the invincibles of Australia – before the COVID-19 enforced break. When the side came back after the gap of almost a year, they went on to lose all the three series they played. The manner in which they lost against the top three sides in the world – South Africa, England, and Australia – might have caused some rethinking. Did they manage to put together a side that can arrest the slide?

Pacers: All eggs in Jhulan Goswami’s basket?

Various coaches and well-wishers of this side have talked about the need for India to find pace bowlers who can support their aging warhorse Goswami. After four years of trial and error, they will be going into the World Cup with an allrounder of ten matches old in Pooja Vastrakar, Meghna Singh, who averages 102.00 from three matches, and an uncapped Renuka Singh Thakur. India’s attack in 2017 had Goswami with 155 caps leading the attack with Shikha Pandey (25), Mansi Joshi (5) lending her support going into the event.

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28-year-old Joshi has played only two matches at the World Cup 2017 and featured only in seven more games since then with her last appearance coming in March 2021. During the same time, Pandey extended her ODI caps to 55 – 23 of them came after the final of the 2017 event – and formed a potent partnership with Goswami. She also led the attack in the T20 World Cup 2020 when they made it to the final of the competition after being left out of the 2018 version. Pandey featured only in three of the 11 ODIs India played in 2021. Was there a gradual erosion of confidence in her and did they identify the replacements going into an event such as the World Cup?

Both Singh (27) and Thakur (25) have been around the circuit for some time now, could they have played more during the period to gain some experience? We don’t have any answers, for now, we will have to make do with a bowling average of 102.00 and a pending debut. These two may go on to perform exceptionally well at the World Cup or they may not be needed at all at the event for India’s strength is spin.

No longer spin it to win it?

India’s spin contingent remains largely unchanged with only Ekta Bisht relegated to the stand-by category. They have also added Sneh Rana into the mix in the 15 that’s picked for the World Cup. But in recent times these spinners have struggled with Bisht being out of favour, Deepti Sharma averaging 76.80 with the ball, and leg-spinner Poonam Yadav giving away 88.25 runs per wicket in 2021. Their downward spiral also coincided with India’s lack of wins during the same period.

Why recent performances are not a yardstick for their selection then? Or do spinners instill more confidence in the management even when they don’t take wickets? Do recent efforts matter at all? Maybe they did give it a thought about those numbers and decided that spinners won’t have much impact in New Zealand conditions and it’s better to stick to the experienced personnel. Only time will tell whether that was the case.

publive-image  Deepti Sharma, Poonam Yadav, Ekta Bisht, Sneh Rana © Getty Images / Women's CricZone

Keeping the wickets or keeping your spot?

Sushma Verma was India’s wicket-keeper during the 2017 campaign and she was then replaced by Taniya Bhatia in 2018. She then came back to take Taniya’s spot in the South Africa home series in March last year with another keeper Sweta Verma also thrown into the mix. Sushma lost her place to Taniya again during the England tour. But Taniya lost her gloves to Richa Ghosh in the Australia series. Ghosh is probably the better batter among all those kept wickets for India in recent times but isn’t a regular keeper for her domestic side Bengal. Since she has been India’s first choice to don the gloves in T20Is, a promotion in ODIs felt like an extension of it.

But did they provide Sushma and Taniya with enough opportunities with the bat at positions that will ensure consistent numbers? One glance at the numbers and the answer is no, of course, they failed during the odd chances they got. Now that both Ghosh and Taniya are there in the fifteen, has the former improved her keeping or the latter her batting? Maybe if go by the team combination, there must be some faith in Taniya that they haven’t picked a spare batter in the 15. We can take wild guesses for now or can wait till we see them in action.

publive-imageSushma Verma, Taniya Bhatia, Richa Ghosh © Getty Images / Women's CricZone

What comes first: Experience or form?

Punam Raut opened the batting with Smriti Mandhana in the 2017 edition and went to have a good tournament scoring 381 runs at 42.33 – second for India behind Raj. Since then the right-hander has been in and out of the team having faced criticism for her strike rate. She had a decent run in the home series against South Africa last year when other batters failed to get going, but was dropped after the first match against England in Bristol. She was replaced by Jemimah Rodrigues, who then was replaced by Yastika Bhatia during the series down under.

Even though she didn’t have much game time at the international arena, Rodrigues set the stage on fire in the inaugural edition of The Hundred and had a successful turn for Melbourne Renegades in the seventh edition of the Women’s Big Bash League. The success in The Hundred must be the reason (we don’t know for sure, for we don’t talk about it) for her return to the T20I fold and she went on to play a handy knock of 49 not against Australia.

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Now both Raut and Rodrigues find themselves out of favour to feature in the 18 that’s picked. Yastika managed to hold on to her spot from the side that played the three ODIs against Australia after impressing the management with her knocks. Sabbineni Meghana, another dashing stroke player in the Rodrigues- mold, will travel to New Zealand in place of Rodrigues (or in place of Raut, take your pick) for her domestic performances as the reserve batter in the stand-by list.

IndiaJemimah Rodrigues, Punam Raut, Yastika Bhatia, S Meghana © Getty Images / Women's CricZone

Did anyone speak to Raut about the concerns regarding her strike rate? Has anyone told Rodrigues that you have to feature in the domestic one-day competition to be eligible for selection?

What were the yardsticks for batters? What’s recent form? Which matches count and which don’t? When’s the world going to end? We can add more questions for we don’t talk about selection when we talk about selection.

Fans, followers, well-wishers, and supporters of the game sometimes feel those in the powers are answerable to them. That may not be true always, but one can only hope the Rauts, the Rodrigues’, the Pandeys have been spoken to and told what they are expected to do – whether to improve the strike rate or the consistency – and where they are at this stage in terms of plans the team management have for them. One will also hope that the Yastikas, the Singhs and the Thakurs are also told what is expected out of them and that a middling World Cup at the start of their career won’t be the end of it.