This tour of Sri Lanka was set to be one of several firsts. It was going to be the first time two senior Indian men's teams played bilateral series simultaneously. It was going to be the first time in over five years that India went into an ODI series without both Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. Someone was going to be named Indian captain for the first time. Rahul Dravid was going to coach the senior national team for the first time.
So it fits neatly into the narrative that five players earn their maiden national call-ups in this series of firsts. Devdutt Padikkal, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Nitish Rana, Krishnappa Gowtham and Chetan Sakariya will all be part of the senior Indian men's setup for the first time (although Gowtham did perform the role of a reserve bowler during the four-match Test series against England earlier this year).
Shikhar Dhawan will be captaining India in the absence of Virat Kohli. AP
The call-ups to these five, plus the confirmation of Shikhar Dhawan as the 40th man to lead the Indian men's cricket team, were the headlines from BCCI's squad announcement for the Sri Lanka tour late on Thursday evening.
What do we make of the 25-strong contingent (20 squad members, five net bowlers) that will head to Sri Lanka? What's at stake for whom? What inferences can be drawn from this selection?
Let's try and categorise the squad, which will contest three ODIs and three T20Is against the Lankans from 13 to 25 July.
The glaring miss
Okay, before segregating the picks, a word on one notable exclusion.
24 Indian cricketers are part of the 'main' team that is in England for the World Test Championship final against New Zealand followed by the five-Test series against England. Of those, 11 are batters (including wicket-keepers, excluding all-rounders). From that 11, six can be bracketed as limited-over batting options, either now or in the future: Kohli, Sharma, KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Shubman Gill, Mayank Agarwal.
Dinesh Karthik last played for India at the 2019 World Cup. AFP
There are a further nine batting picks (again, including 'keepers and excluding all-rounders) in the squad that will travel to Sri Lanka.
To that, add Shreyas Iyer, who is out injured.
That Dinesh Karthik is not considered among the top 16 batters in limited overs cricket in India " especially ahead of an 18-month period likely to witness two T20 World Cups " is, frankly, unfathomable.
The ODI World Cup semi-final against New Zealand in July 2019 remains his last international appearance. Karthik didn't cover himself in glory in the opportunities he got at that World Cup.
Here's the thing, though: Karthik had batted in 14 T20I innings for India since the start of 2018, averaging 57.00 and scoring 9.63 runs per over. Sure, the average was inflated by 10 not outs in 14 innings. But the scoring rate? Elite, by any standards. Unreal, by Indian-T20-finishers-not-called-Pant-or-Pandya standards.
The senior crew
Alright, let's focus on the ones who were picked now.
Skipper Dhawan, his deputy Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Hardik Pandya, Yuzvendra Chahal and Manish Pandey form the senior core of this group. Ironically, in a series that could be looked at as one giant audition (more on that shortly), only one of these five 'seniors' can feel certain of his spot in the 'primary' XI come India's T20 World Cup opener (whenever, and wherever, that happens).
That certainty is Pandya, although a fit Bhuvneshwar will surely be a virtually-guaranteed starter too, as he displayed during the limited overs series against England in March.
Dhawan knows the race to the opening slots at the World Cup is going to go down to the wire; as if the three-horse competition between him, Rohit and Rahul wasn't tense enough, Kohli has thrown his name into the mix by choice, and Ishan Kishan, too, has made a case by performance.
Chahal, too, is surely feeling the heat from Rahul Chahar as far as a leg-spinning first XI spot is concerned. Chahar got game-time during the England series and carried the confidence into the IPL, where he was the leading wicket-taker among spinners at the point the season halted. In stark contrast to Chahar's haul of 11 wickets from seven games (economy 7.21), Chahal had only managed four scalps from his seven outings, while leaking 8.26 per over.
Manish Pandey's strike rate in T20 cricket has come under immense scrutiny. Image: Sportzpics for BCCI
For Pandey, a berth in the T20 setup already seems a bridge too far, given the progression of India's young batting options, and his own regression no less " a scoring rate of just over 7.50 runs per over in the last 1.5 seasons of the IPL just can't be cutting it, especially not in a team setup crying out for a move away from incessant anchoring. The ODI leg of the Sri Lanka tour should be where Pandey earns his latest India caps, given the shortage of genuine middle-order picks in the selected 20. Then again, a few months shy of 32, the longer-term picture for him in the ODI setup doesn't smell of rainbows and butterflies either, does it?
The auditioning mix
The disclaimer has already been touched upon above: in a way, this is an audition for pretty much everyone making the trip. But for a few in particular, the three T20Is (and any additional opportunities that may come their way in the ODIs) and the second-half of the IPL is crunch-time as far as potential World Cup berths are concerned.
Among the batters, three names stand out: Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan and Sanju Samson.
Apart from obvious pedigree, each brings the 'more positive' approach that Kohli demanded ahead of the five T20Is against England. It has finally dawned upon the Indian management that there is such a thing as too much caution in T20 innings construction, and the shift from overt caution towards applied aggression has opened the door further for this gifted trio.
The Yadavs and Kishans and Samsons ought to be breathing heavily down the necks of the Sharmas and Rahuls and Iyers; if they aren't already, some more gung-ho outings in Sri Lanka will only boost their cause.
A late out-of-screen entrant onto this stage could be Prithvi Shaw, especially if this forced break of the last month doesn't stem what could only be described as a crazy couple of months on the road to redemption: after blazing a barely-believable 827 runs in eight Vijay Hazare Trophy games (average 165.40, strike rate 138.29), Shaw took the IPL by storm with 308 runs in eight innings at a scoring rate of 9.99 per over " only Ambati Rayudu and Kieron Pollard scored faster during the first half of IPL 2021.
Of greatest interest among the bowling group will be the Chahar cousins, Deepak and Rahul.
To reiterate Rahul's brilliance in the half-season in lay-person terms, the only spinner to come within touching distance of him during IPL 2021 " quantitatively or qualitatively " was this man called Rashid Khan.
Deepak, meanwhile, had the ultimate hot-and-cold season. Eight wickets from seven games reads quite fairly at face value, but all eight of those wickets came from two outings, where his combined figures read 8-1-42-8; in five other games, he had the more humbling returns of 16-0-151-0. The elder of the Chahars will want a more balanced display in Sri Lanka " assisting conditions tend to make him a much superior bowler, and that could be the case here, especially in evening outings.
Elsewhere, will Varun Chakravarthy finally get an audition? This is the third straight T20I assignment where he has been picked by the selectors " a shoulder injury ruled him out of the Australia tour, and when England came visiting, he couldn't pass the mandatory fitness test. His fitness has been much the greater mystery than his bowling post his IPL 2020 exploits; it's a curve he'd like to bring back in shape.
Eyeing a comeback
Three names make this category, and the irony is that all three, by definition, wouldn't require a 'comeback' since each was a part of at least one of the limited overs squad when England were in India. But given their form and fortune, Krunal Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav and Navdeep Saini will know they've got some coming back to do, into the management's conscience and/or plans.
Krunal caught the eye with a blazing knock on ODI debut " the fastest half-century by an Indian ODI debutant " but to stand a remote chance of contesting Ravindra Jadeja's position in the primary setup, he needed to be above expectations with both bat and ball. He ended with series figures of 1/160 from 20 overs (yeah, those were ODI figures).
Even more desolate was Kuldeep Yadav, who went wicketless while leaking eight runs per over in the two ODIs he played, continuing his freefalling slide of the last two years. Since the start of IPL 2019, Kuldeep has 18 wickets in 19 ODIs (E/R 5.83), four wickets in three T20Is (E/R 10.37), five wickets in 14 IPL games (E/R 8.40) and two wickets in one Test. Will the former self stand up again?
Saini's task was anyway herculean given the depth of India's pace bowling reserves, but he hasn't made much of a case for his white-ball selection at all: six wickets in 14 IPL appearances over 2020 and 2021 (E/R 8.52), and 1/153 from 17 overs in two ODIs in Australia (his last two limited overs outings for India).
For the future
Four of the five first-time entrants in the Indian squad could realistically look at the Sri Lanka tour as a beta phase testing. There is no denying the talent and potential in each of Padikkal, Gaikwad, Rana and Sakariya, and if recent history tells us anything, there is no ruling out any newcomer in Indian cricket " but a crack at the primary team, even for a World Cup with an expanded squad size of 22, might be a bridge too far at the moment.
That's no reason to not be excited, though.
At a very nascent stage of his career, Padikkal's batting has been as attractive as it is consistent. He was matching Shaw century for century at the Vijay Hazare Trophy, finishing with 737 runs from seven innings while becoming the first Indian to hit four successive List-A hundreds. He has a List-A career average of 86.68 (yes, average, not strike rate). He already has one-and-a-half successful IPL seasons under his belt. And he'll only turn 21 a week before the ODI series commences.
Gaikwad's average of 47.87 may pale in comparison to Padikkal's, but over the course of a longer List-A career, already 59 matches old, that is rather solid. And in only 13 IPL appearances, he has five half-centuries to his name.
Rana averages 41.27 in List-A cricket, scores at 8.18 per over in T20s, and already has as many IPL half-centuries as Sachin Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh and Yusuf Pathan (13).
Sakariya, well, what a story " a 23-year-old traversing a lifetime's worth of an emotional roller-coaster in no time. In January, Sakariya's younger brother died by suicide; in March, he received his maiden IPL contract, an INR 1.2 crore payday; through April, he dazzled on tournament debut; in May, days after the season was abruptly postponed, he lost his father to COVID-19. His selection comes through skill, not sympathy " six of his seven wickets at the IPL were those of KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Ambati Rayudu, Suresh Raina, MS Dhoni and Nitish Rana.
The somewhat surprising
That covers all the names in this 20-man squad¦ barring one.
Over the course of IPL 2019 and 2020, Krishnappa Gowtham took two wickets in nine games, conceding 8.93 runs per over. In all T20s since the start of 2019, he has 10 wickets from 20 outings while going at 8.13 per over. This year, Chennai Super Kings dished out INR 9.25 crore for his services, and were yet to field him when the tournament was suspended.
He's clearly not in the mix for the T20s, one would imagine.
His List-A numbers are quite decent: 70 wickets in 47 games, a batting strike rate of 141.26. But he's also 32, so clearly not a long-term investment.
Would it have hurt to have, say, a Ravi Bishnoi instead? And if the criteria was right-arm off-break, and if age wasn't a major hindrance, how was Jalaj Saxena's case any lesser to Gowtham's? Their List-A bowling numbers are identical (with Saxena better on economy), and Saxena is the significantly better-performing batter, with three List-A centuries (in addition to 14 first-class tons).
It's a bit iffy. It couldn't have been an Indian team announcement without one of these, could it?