KL Rahul (left) and Sanju Samson
KL Rahul (left) and Sanju Samson. Rahul’s low strike rate seems to have worked against him, while Samson’s measured knocks and high strike rate tilted the scales in his favour. Image Credit: ANI

How did that happen? KL Rahul dropped! I’m stunned. Lost for words. I didn’t expect it. Here’s a batter who survived a nightmarish run drought with the backing of the Indian team management. More specifically, from head coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit Sharma.

Three years back, Rahul’s poor show as an opener cost India a place in the semifinals of the T20 World Cup in the UAE. A year later, the Karnataka batter hardly endeared to Indian cricket fans with another lukewarm performance in Australia. But then he repaid the team’s faith with a string of fine scores in the 50-over World Cup last year.

How did Rahul enjoy so much support despite the lack of runs? That’s because he’s a specialist batter who can keep wickets. He’s not a specialist keeper, but that’s not a handicap in white-ball cricket. Even Dravid did just that during his playing days.

How KL Rahul fell out of favour

When a batter can keep wickets, it eliminates the need for a specialist wicketkeeper, allowing teams to pack in an extra batter or a bowler. India used that option since the batting tends to be fragile.

Wicketkeeper-batters like Rishabh Pant and Sanju Samson changed that line of thinking. The two high-quality wicketkeepers can walk into the Indian team on the strength of their batting.

Here’s where Rahul’s goose was cooked. As a batter, he had to deliver more runs than Pant and Samson at a better strike rate. That hasn’t happened. Pant and Samson have been in such good touch that their strike rate is far superior to Rahul’s. So, the omission didn’t come as a surprise. Clearly, Rahul couldn’t keep up with T20 cricket and its high-scoring rates, while Pant and Samson revelled in it.

I wasn’t so sure of Samson’s selection. I believed that Rahul will make the cut at the expense of Samson. That has been the story of the Rajasthan Royals captain. Times without number, he’s missed the Indian team bus, with critics pointing to his lack of consistency and unbridled aggression. This year, he’s answered his detractors with a steady stream of runs, and he steered Rajasthan to the top of the IPL table with some fine wins.

The selection doesn’t guarantee Samson an automatic place in the playing eleven. Pant will be the first-choice keeper on the strength of his international experience. His unorthodox strokeplay can throw bowlers off-track and score at a fast clip. Perfect for T20 cricket. In IPL, Pant showed that he’s fully recovered from a crippling injury, keeping wickets well and revving the scoring.

Samson’s best bet would be to chase a batting slot. The Kerala player will get his chance if regular batters fail to fire consistently. And he can play anywhere in the top five slots.

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While Samson celebrates his inclusion, Rinku Singh must be disappointed. He played the finisher role to perfection in the runup to the World Cup, yet finds a place only in the reserves. Shivam Dube got the nod ahead of Rinku as his mediumpace bowling supplements his shotmaking. Moreover, the designated finisher Hardik Pandya is now vice-captain, and Ravindra Jadeja follows him in the late middle order.

The relegation of Shubhman Gill to the reserves list wasn’t unexpected. True, the Gujarat Titans captain has improved his T20 game, but there are better Indian players, as we have seen in the IPL. Yashasvi Jaiswal is one, and he’s the lone lefthander in the top order. Ruturaj Gaikwad played some superb innings under pressure and deserved a place, at least in the reserves, but that went to Gill. Gaikwad indeed has reason to feel aggrieved, not Gill.

Why Yuzvendra Chahal will sharpen the attack 

The inclusion of Yuzvendra Chahal is heartwarming. The leg-spinner is a certified wicket-taker and a matchwinner. After languishing in the cricketing wilderness since the 2019 World Cup (50 overs) in England, Chahal made some sporadic international appearances last year. He comes into the Indian team on the strength of some super performances in the IPL, where he heads the chase for the Purple Cap (for the highest wicket-taker).

Chahal’s addition strengthens the spin attack, led by Jadeja and chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav. Left-arm spinner Axar Patel will also be in the reckoning, and he can bat too: a genuine allrounder.

Pace bowler Arshdeep Singh returns to the squad despite not being at his best in the IPL. He provides a left-hand option and merits a place ahead of Khaleel Ahmed, who’s a standby. Mohammad Shami missed out as he has yet to recover from the injury, which allows Mohammad Siraj to retain his berth despite a dip in form.

The squad looks good, with all bases covered for the World Cup, starting on June 1 in the US and the West Indies. Will India win? They can.

Indias T20 World Cup squad