Rishabh Pant and Sanju Samson
Rishabh Pant (left) and Sanju Samson practise during a training session ahead of India's ICC T20 World Cup opener against Ireland, in New York on Tuesday. Image Credit: ANI

Sanju Samson or Rishabh Pant, who will play for India in their T20 World Cup opener against Ireland on Wednesday? That’s a no-brainer. Isn’t it? It has to be Pant. His place was never in doubt. After all, he was the first-choice Indian wicketkeeper in Tests until a severe road crash put him out of action. Now that he’s returned to cricket, the Indian wicketkeeper’s slot is rightfully his.

Strangely, Pant was displaced by Dinesh Karthik in the 2022 T20 World Cup. Very odd, I thought. True, Karthik’s fiery IPL form fetched him a place in the squad, but to play him ahead of Pant was baffling.

Pant’s always aggressive, irrespective of the format. Unorthodox too. Which makes it difficult to restrict his scoring. And he’s left-handed, a rarity in Indian batting. That makes him an automatic choice.

Why a left-hand batsman matters

A left-hander in the middle order is essential in T20 games. Because bowling sides tend to strangle batsmen with leg-spin and left-arm spin in the middle overs. A left-handed batsman can shake off the shackles as they can hit with the spin.

Pant has shown just that in the IPL games. He captained the Delhi Capitals and weighed in with stroke-filled knocks that dispelled doubts about his fitness and form. That was enough for him to walk into the World Cup squad.

If there was a miasma of doubt about his match fitness, Pant dismissed that with a half-century in the warm-up fixture against Bangladesh on Sunday. Well, there you have it. The 26-year-old cemented his place, not just for the Ireland game but for all the India matches in the tournament.

Samson was a flop in the warm-up game, which deflated his chances. Now, his hope hinges on playing only as a batsman. Even for that, Samson should show that he’s in good nick; such an opportunity won’t come in the middle of a tournament.

read more

Let’s say Samson has been impressive in the training sessions. So impressive that captain Rohit Sharma and head coach Rahul Dravid want to find a place for him in the playing eleven. Where will they fit Samson in?

I think Rohit will open with the left-handed Yashasvi Jaiswal (he’s been in rousing form), followed by Virat Kohli, Suryakumar Yadav and Pant. Then comes allrounders Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel/Shivam Dube. The bowlers Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep Yadav and Arshdeep Singh/Mohammed Siraj complete the team. So there’s no slot for another batsman. Unless Rohit opts for only five bowlers, which is a huge risk. More so since none of the top five batsmen can bowl. Nor can Samson.

In that case, Samson will have to cool his heels, waiting for a chance to arrive. That shouldn’t be a problem. It’s been the story of his career.