The Indian cricket team will embark upon their tour of South Africa just two days after the conclusion of the T20I series against Sri Lanka, kicking off their two month long tour with a two-day practice game at Boland Park in Paarl starting December 30th. That will be followed by a gruelling contest featuring three Tests, six ODIs and three T20Is between these two highly competitive sides.
Considering the length of the tour and the nature of the competition, it becomes highly important for the visiting team to have reliable back-up options in the side, in case the first team players wear out in the middle of the long and tiring tour. The same should be the Indian selectors’ strategy while selecting the squad for the tour of South Africa.
Reports have surfaced in recent times that India will carry a 17-member squad with an extra wicket-keeping option for the Test series. Now, the question is what should be the composition of that squad? How many batsmen should they include? How many all-rounders would be sufficient? Should they carry an extra spinner or a pacer? All these questions are giving the selectors a hard time.
However, as many as seven batsmen—KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma are automatic selections in the squad. Similar is the case with the four pacers in Umesh Yadav, Mohammad Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma and the two main spinners in Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin. And it is no different when it comes to the first choice wicket-keeper in Wriddhiman Saha and all-rounder in Hardik Pandya. So, 15 members in total are confirmed to board the flight for South Africa.
Now, the dilemma will arise in selecting the remaining two members. One of them needs to be an extra wicket-keeper in all probability. And other needs to be an extra pacer or a wrist spinner to lend the team an attacking option as and when required.
If the selectors opt to go for an extra pacer considering the South African conditions, the first name that would be on the list is that of Jasprit Bumrah. He looks all set to soar high in Test cricket once he is handed his Test cap. And if they still decide upon saving him for limited overs format only, then it may result in the inclusions of Mohammad Siraj, Siddharth Kaul or a surprise element in Delhi’s Navdeep Saini.
Bumrah can make test debut against South Africa
However, if they go with the second school of thought and give Hardik Pandya the responsibility of playing the extra pacer’s role, then the tussle for a wrist spinner’s spot would be between Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. Both have high chances of boarding the South African flight. The only thing that remains to be seen is who gets the nod from the selectors.
Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal have high chances of boarding the South African flight
And as far as the extra wicket-keeper’s slot is concerned, Parthiv Patel is the frontrunner in that race while Dinesh Karthik has his chances too. Patel did pretty well in the home series against England back in 2016, amassing 195 runs in two Tests at a good average of 48.75 that included two scores of fifties as well. Moreover, he will also lend the team a batting option who can bat anywhere in the order depending on the situations. And it won’t be much of a surprise if the selectors opt to go for Dinesh Karthik over Patel as the former has prior experience in South African conditions. Moreover, the selectors have rewarded him with regular outings in limited overs format as a result of his good domestic form in recent times. So, it won’t be an unusual choice if they opt for Karthik.
Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik are eying the extra wicketkeeper slot
However, one candidate who misses out if the choices go in this order is the 26-year old Tamil Nadu all-rounder Vijay Shankar. He can be a very good backup option if things go wrong with Hardik Pandya during the tour. The all-rounder boasts a first class batting average of 49.14 with five centuries to his name. Couple that with 27 wickets in 32 first class games and you have a very good backup seam-bowling all-rounder for Pandya. Sadly, he was dropped from the squad for the third Test against Sri Lanka after being called up as a cover for Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the second Test. And that does not give good indications towards his selection for the tour of South Africa.
Vijay Shankar averages 49.14 with five centuries to his name in first class.
The Indian selectors should not ignore his talent and potential. He deserves to be picked in the squad as he has the ability to perform well in these conditions. And that has to be at the cost of either opting out of the option of an extra spinner or pacer, or, one amongst the two spinners—Ravichandran Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja—has to be dropped. Another option is accommodating Shankar in place of Rohit Sharma. However, that doesn’t look likely as the Indian think tank is backing Rohit and he has also made a case for himself with a century against Sri Lanka in the second Test. So, dropping either of Ashwin and Jadeja seems like the most likely option available.
That would bring in a wrist-spinner in either of Chahal or Kuldeep into the frame and Bumrah would need to wait further to make his mark in Test cricket. So, in order to succeed in the grueling South African conditions, the selectors and the Indian think tank need to be a bit bold as the have been during recent times. Dropping Ashwin and Jadeja from the limited overs squad was one of the boldest decisions MSK Prasad led selection committee had taken. Now, it remains to be seen if the can be bold enough to exclude Jadeja and include Shankar in the line-up.