India were all set to take their first step towards a settled playing XI in T20Is, one they had earned en route to their ODI series win against Australia. With Shikhar Dhawan back in form, the top-three were a class apart, once again, and the middle-order had a new responsible and sturdy shoulder in KL Rahul. And the batting setup perfectly allowed skipper Virat Kohli to use his preferred ploy of six bowling options, although Hardik Pandya is yet to fully recover from his recurring injuries. But alas! With Dhawan picking up a fresh shoulder injury that ruled him out of the T20I and the ODI series, the team management has been pushed back to the drawing board to look at alternatives for their playing XI, one which could be suitable for New Zealand conditions.
Dhawan had tumbled upon his left shoulder while making an effort to stop a cover drive from Australian skipper Aaron Finch in the third ODI and immediately left the field clutching his shoulder. He later did not come out to bat, as he was taken to the hospital for scans and was spotted in the dressing room with his arm sling. On Tuesday morning, the evening after the Indian team had departed for the New Zealand tour, Dhawan was ruled out owing to his injury.
The tour begins from January 24 onwards with the crucial five-game T20I series followed by three ODIs. With Dhawan out, on Tuesday the All-India Senior Selection Committee named his replacement for the T20I and ODI series in New Zealand. While Sanju Samson replaces Dhawan for the five-game T20I series, Prithvi Shaw has been called up for the ODIs. India will have to fall back to experimentation mode, one which may in fact prove handy given the left-hander becoming prone to injuries.
First possibility - Rahul returns to the opening spot: India can fall back to their old tactic of playing Rahul as the opener when either one between Dhawan or Rohit Sharma is absent. The 25-year-old has already proven his versatility in the batting order while also impressively performing as a wicketkeeper.
Since the start of 2019, Rahul has played 23 limited-overs matches for India as an opener and he averages 42.41 with two centuries and seven half-centuries while also having a false-shot percentage of around 10.6 (only behind Kohli) - well ahead of Dhawan's numbers. Moreover, Rahul-Rohit partnership at the top, since 2019, averages 79.66 across 15 matches in limited-overs cricket, with six century-stands.
But this move would mean India would have to find a middle-order option, given that Rahul has already been touted to continue as the team's No.5 batsman while being the wicketkeeper.
India could either go with Manish Pandey, who recently scored an unbeaten 31 off 18 against Sri Lanka in the 3rd T20I to guide the team beyond 200. He averages 59 from 14 appearances at No.5 and strikes at 125 and holds the ability to accelerate the innings in the slog overs. Pandey is also an excellent fielder, which will work as a brownie point in his favour.
Rishabh Pant is another option for the middle-order lineup. It can serve him as a final opportunity to prove his worth and force him to bring his T20 best to the table, given Kohli's big comment on Sunday. He has been in a poor run of form in the format, scoring only 253 runs in 16 innings at 21.08 with only one half-century.
Hence the batting lineup will go as (No.1 to 7) - Rahul, Rohit, Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, Pandey/Pant, Shivam Dube, Ravindra Jadeja.
Second possibility - Giving Sanju Samson another go ahead: Luck hasn't favoured the Kerala youngsters so far. He was called up for a series, dropped in the next without getting a game, then called up again only to have earned one chance where he scored a two-ball six before being dropped again. He was however recalled on Tuesday evening for the New Zealand T20I series with Dhawan being ruled out.
Moreover, with the left-hander’s absence, it will give India the opportunity to groom a back-up opener in Samson, the natural position for the batsman in the format. This means the management can go ahead with Rahul as their No.5 batter and wicketkeeper.
Hence the batting lineup will go as (No.1 to 7) - Samson, Rohit, Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, Rahul, Shivam Dube, Ravindra Jadeja.
This injury could also help India look at a plan B or an alternative playing XI for World T20 in Australia given Dhawan's repeated shoulder troubles.