The 15-man Indian cricket team squad for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 was selected at the BCCI headquarters in Mumbai. It was anticipated that there would not be too many surprises in the team. When the dust settled, there were a few surprises but 90 percent of the squad selected was on expected lines. Ambati Rayudu, who was touted as India’s solution to the No.4 issue in the middle order, suffered a dip in form at the wrong time and was replaced by KL Rahul. However, the biggest talking point to emerge from the selection meeting was the omission of Rishabh Pant, who was playing regularly for India in the last six months from the World Cup squad as the back-up keeper to MS Dhoni with Dinesh Karthik getting the nod.
The move to omit Pant has raised some questions. Former India skipper Sunil Gavaskar was surprised at his omission, stating, “A bit surprised, looking at his (Pant's) form. He was batting exceptionally well, not only in the IPL but before that also. He was showing great improvement in his wicket-keeping as well. He brings that left-handed option in the top-six which is very handy against the bowlers.” Michael Vaughan, former England captain, termed the move to omit Pant as ‘bonkers’. However, the comment from the chief of selectors MSK Prasad is interesting. “We felt either DK or Pant will only come into the playing eleven if Mahi is injured. So that at juncture if it is a crucial match, a quarterfinal or a semifinal, keeping also matters. The situation that was discussed by the selection committees, one of them will play in the XI provided MS in injured. So under such situations, in crunch matches who is the best guy to handle the pressure, so that is the reason, it went in favour of Karthik,” Prasad said.
Prasad’s statement, if looked at hindsight, effectively sealed Pant’s fate during the fourth ODI against Australia in Mohali. With Australia in pursuit of 359, Pant missed a couple of stumping chances and also tried a run-out chance MS Dhoni style which was badly botched. When the pressure increased, Pant fumbled and conceded plenty of runs behind the wicket. There were a total of 12 extras from byes and leg byes alone. To compound his woes, Pant badly misjudged a review which went against India and they lost the review. Australia rode on the momentum and secured the highest successful chase by a visiting team in India.
The criticism leveled at Pant following the Mohali ODI was immense. During the match, there were chants of ‘Dhoni, Dhoni, Dhoni’ which further demoralised him. Although support for Pant was immense, the crucial blunders made by Pant during the pressure situation in Mohali probably played a major part in his omission.
Karthik played in the ODIs in Australia and New Zealand. Pant played in three ODIs in New Zealand. Karthik was not even selected for the Australia ODIs at home while Pant played in two ODIs and had moderate success with the bat but struggled behind the wickets. In that period, Pant was elevated to Grade A in the BCCI Central Contracts while Karthik remained in Grade C. Pant was the first-choice keeper in Tests and he responded in grand style by hammering centuries in England and Australia. He also took a record 11 catches as keeper in a single match in Adelaide and ended with 20 dismissals in the entire series, the most by an Indian keeper. Karthik made a comeback after eight years to the Test side but failed in England.
With the selectors playing musical chairs on Pant and Karthik, one figures what was the thinking in leaving out Karthik for the home games against Australia. It also raises the question on whether Pant was given too little opportunities and whether Karthik has been given a raw deal considering he too was rotated in and out of the ODI squad.
Handling pressure, ICC experience
Prasad pointed out that in a crucial match, keeping and ability to handle pressure was crucial. The ability to finish games in case MS Dhoni is rested or is injured also comes to play. Pant potentially botched his chance during the first Twenty20 International in Brisbane where he played a rash shot and India lost by four runs at the start of the series. Karthik also did himself no favours when he was heavily criticised for not giving Krunal Pandya the strike during the series-deciding Twenty20 in Hamilton against New Zealand.
What might have tilted the scales towards Karthik was his finishing and big-tournament experience. Karthik has been part of the 2007 World T20 and also played a part in the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy held in England. However, the way how Karthik finished the game during the final of the Nidahas Trophy, in which he blasted 29 runs and gave India a win over Bangladesh by hitting a last-ball six, probably sealed his place due to the knock in Colombo in March 2018.
Karthik’s experience in ICC events and his keeping, considered more efficient than Pant, swung it in his favour. Pant’s omission will hurt the youngster badly, but he will get a chance in an Indian cricket team scenario post-Dhoni and after the 2019 World Cup. The dashing left-hander will be determined to set his sights on the 2020 World T20 which will be held in Australia.
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