The recently concluded India-Australia T20I series in Bengaluru had a subdued buzz surrounding it. Considered by many as India’s chance to seek redemption for the painful ODI World Cup final loss against Australia, albeit in a different format, the series lacked the presence of several key players from both sides who were part of the aforementioned tournament. Rested players and a dearth of big names somewhat dampened the aura of the series, yet its significance loomed large with the 2024 T20 World Cup just seven months away.
India, like many other teams, faces a scarcity of games leading up to the World Cup scheduled to start on June 4 in the West Indies and the United States. With only 11 international matches on their fixture list, every game becomes crucial in shaping a core 15-member squad capable of ending India’s longstanding ICC trophy drought.
Given the limited number of matches, having the best resources available from the beginning is essential. However, with selectors opting to rest 12 of their ODI World Cup squad members, the Australia series became an opportunity for fringe players to showcase their talents and make a case for inclusion in the World Cup team. India found several positives in their thrilling 4-1 win, with players like Suryakumar Yadav, Shreyas Iyer, Yashavi Jaiswal, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Jitesh Sharma, Ishan Kishan, and the standout performer Rinku Singh making noteworthy contributions.
Amidst the runs, sixes, centuries, and victories, a significant concern emerged – much like the ODI World Cup. Former Australian cricketer Simon Katich pointed out this issue during a discussion on Jio Cinema before the fifth T20I at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium.
The linchpin that made India an invincible side at the start of the ODI World Cup was the balance brought by Hardik Pandya to the lineup. Unlike the past, none of the top-order batters bowls in white-ball cricket today. With the advent of throwdowns in practice sessions and injury concerns, batters have stopped honing their bowling skills, making genuine all-rounders crucial for balancing the lineup. Hardik, as India’s only top fast-bowling all-rounder, becomes a pivotal member, perhaps even more critical than the captain. His absence due to a freak ankle injury in the fourth game of the series left India vulnerable, forcing a quick shift to Plan B.
While India showcased supreme performances until the semifinal round, the issue resurfaced on the night that mattered most, costing them the ODI World Cup. This wasn’t a new lesson; India faced similar consequences in the 2021 T20 World Cup, where Hardik featured solely as a batter due to an underlying back injury restricting his bowling role.
With the T20I series against Australia seen as an opportunity to rectify this issue and find a backup for the injury-prone Hardik, the management missed a chance. Simon Katich emphasized the need for a genuine all-rounder in the top six, especially considering the potential vulnerability if Hardik or others face challenges during a match.
In the five matches against Australia, India opted for only five bowling options, with no consideration for testing medium-pace bowling all-rounder Shivam Dube. Dube, who had an exceptional IPL 2023 season, was the only player not given an opportunity in the series. Fast-bowling all-rounders are a rare commodity, and while India might not find another Hardik in the short term, preparing a backup becomes crucial.
The Australia series was a prime opportunity for India’s management to explore options, but the wait continues until the Afghanistan series in January before the focus turns to the 2024 IPL. The concern over India’s all-round depth, particularly in the fast-bowling department, remains a looming challenge that needs urgent attention.