It was an unfortunate start for the Indian cricket team into the World T20 year. Rain and wet patches at the Barsapara Stadium in Guwahati on Sunday (January 5) abandoned India's opening game of the year, against a beleaguered Sri Lanka. Yet there was one worrying factor about the Indian cricket team.
Rain had arrived in Guwahati 15 minutes before the kick-off time. By then, the teams were done with the toss, with Indian skipper Virat Kohli opting to bowl first with hope to chase against the Lasith Malinga-led Sri Lanka drawing cue from Australia's eight-wicket win against the hosts two years back.
"The track does play differently in the second half as compared to the first part. It's a good thing actually, there isn't too much of a difference in conditions, except that the track settles down better later on with the wet ball," Kohli explained before revealing the changes in his playing XI.
Manish Pandey and Sanju Samson were once again rested besides Yuzvendra Chahal and Ravindra Jadeja while Kuldeep Yadav and Washington Sundar were included because of the presence of left-handers in Sri Lankan batting lineup.
Pandey has consistently been part of India's T20 set up over the last two years, but has been on and off from the playing XI. And that has been despite his strong numbers in the domestic season. He played in South Africa last February scoring 121 runs at an average of 121.00 and strike rate of 142.35 and then participated in the Nidahas Trophy, scoring 134 runs in four innings at an average of 67 and with a strike rate of around 120. These were preceded by his impressive performance in Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, where he amassed 331 runs and averaged 66.20 and had the third-highest strike rate among top-50 run-getters - a performance that earned him a recall for the South Africa and Nidahas series.
Pandey had a decent IPL 2018 season scoring 284 runs in 15 matches at 25.81 with three half-centuries, but retained his spot for the Ireland series where he batted only once scoring an unbeaten 21 at No.5. He was, however, benched for the entire England series in July and for the Australia series while making a brief appearance against West Indies at home.
"Honestly, it's a little tough and it works on your mind a lot," Pandey had said following his nifty 79* off 48 in the South Africa T20I series in February 2018, on dealing with his one-step-forward-two-backward international career so far. "Especially on this tour I have felt it a lot actually. I had to see a doctor also because of that, but that was cricket is all about. You have to wait [for] your chances, especially to play for a team like India when you have so many stars and legends after legends. You have to be patient, and I am trying my bit there."
Pandey went back to domestic cricket, scoring 314 runs at 78.50 in nine games for Karnataka in Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy 2019 with one century and two fifties. However, he missed out on the 15-member squad for New Zealand and Australia (home) series.
His performance fell considerably in the IPL season that followed thereafter, but saw a rise when the overseas stars flew home for World Cup preparation. He strung together scores of 83*, 61 and 36 while striking at an improved rate of 173.3 in the first 10 balls and boundaries came every 4.8 deliveries.
Pandey only returned for one full series after World Cup 2019, against West Indies, and made one appearance in the Bangladesh series despite being named in all the home squads for India.
On Sunday, he missed the cut, again.
The whole idea of calling an enervate team like Sri Lanka at home was to test players or give more opportunities to players who have been lacking those chances or are yet to identify their roles. This was a great chance to experiment.
With the team management adamant on Rishabh Pant at No.5 and keeping six bowling options, Pandey's only place in the squad comes at No.4, which has been so far cemented by Shreyas Iyer. But with the latter having proven his credentials in the opportunities he got after World Cup, Pandey would have easily been opted for as No.4 batsman against Sri Lanka given the fact that he is a certainty for World T20.
Even if you are looking at him as a back-up player, India need to get him match ready. They cannot repeat the errors they committed during World Cup 2019 preparations where backups were picked at random. And if Manish isn't the candidate that India is looking for, he ought to be released for domestic matches.
The same is the story for Samson.
Four years after his India debut, the only international appearance in his career, Samson was recalled as a replacement for struggling Pant, in the series against Bangladesh. The 25-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman has had decent IPL seasons over the last three years averaging over 30 and striking at around 140 with two centuries and five fifties.
Yet, despite Pant's repeated faltering performances in the format where he averaged only 21 in 2019 with a strike rate of 124.75, Samson has not made his second appearance in the playing XI.
Moreover, as quirky as the selection process got, Samson was excluded for the West Indies series at home without getting a game against Bangladesh.
In between, he went back to his domestic team and scored 112 runs in four appearances for Kerala in Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and followed it up with 116 and 78 in back-to-back matches in Ranji Trophy.
Samson was called up, for the Sri Lanka series. But like Pandey, he too remained unfortunate yet again, to not have found a place in the playing XI.
It is comprehensible that Samson is more of a top-order batsman, the one place which is not up for grabs in the Indian squad. Ask KL Rahul! But as mentioned above, if he is even as a back-up player, management needs to get him game ready.
India still have good 14 international matches left along with the Asia Cup before the World T20 to lock-in on their final 15. But they need to act quickly and smartly, with a good plan which does not lose its way halfway down the year.