MUMBAI: Just a day after he turned 37, Ravichandran Ashwin received a delayed, but valuable ‘birthday gift’ from India’s selectors.
A left quadriceps strain which ruled out left-arm spinner Axar Patel of the Asia Cup final has given the seasoned campaigner’s ODI career a lifeline few would have imagined as he was on Monday picked for the three ODIs against Australia, which will be played on September 22, 24 and 27.
It’s a remarkable turnaround of Ashwin’s white-ball fortunes, considering that the off-spinner last played an ODI more than 18 months ago, in January 2022 in South Africa.
Keeping workload management in mind ahead of the World Cup while also aiming to give chances to their bench, senior players-India captain Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Hardik Pandya, along with Asia Cup hero Kuldeep Yadav-have been rested for the first two games of the series.
In what has truly been a truly fairy-tale comeback, KL Rahul has gone from being out of the team for five months due to a hamstring injury, to scoring in a century in his return match against Pakistan in the Asia Cup despite knowing that he was in the XI just five minutes before the toss, to being the stand-in India captain for the first two ODIs against the Aussies.
The idea to rest Kuldeep is to clearly not overexpose him against the Aussies, especially since India play their World Cup opener against the same opponents on October 8 in Chennai.
All the regulars return for the third game at Rajkot, also India’s last before the World Cup. For that match, India have picked the same squad that they have for the World Cup, adding both Ashwin and Sundar to the bunch. This series will be India’s last ODI assignment before the World Cup.
Interestingly, while they still don’t have an off-spinner in their World Cup squad, India have picked two off-spinners in their 15-member squad for the first two games of this series, with Washington Sundar also in the mix. If Patel doesn’t recover in time before the September 28 deadline set by the ICC, either of Ashwin or Sundar will be drafted in his place in India’s World Cup squad.
“We’re hoping Axar will be fit. Washy was already part of the squad for the final. Ashwin brings experience, so it gives us options in case there is a need at some stage for us to look at those guys,” chief selector Ajit Agarkar said.
A seasoned campaigner, Ashwin has been training for the past week at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore with spin coach Sairaj Bahutule. However, there are genuine concerns around his lack of game time in the ODIs. For Rohit, a known backer of Ashwin over the years, that hardly seemed to be an issue.
“With guys like Ashwin, game time and time on the ground is not so much of a concern. Which is why we thought if he is an option for us, we need to get him in. With the kind of experience he has, for guys like him, it’s all in the head more than the body. I thought getting him in could give is a chance to understand where he is at, how his body is and stuff like that,” he said.
“It’s not like he has not been playing cricket for the last year or so. Yes, he hasn’t played in this (ODI) format, but he played Test cricket recently in the West Indies, and if I’m not wrong, in the TNPL as well.”
Explaining the team management’s rationale behind resting some senior players just before the World Cup, Agarkar felt that a few players needed “mental break” given the short turnaround time-just five days-between their victorious Asia Cup campaign and the first ODI.
“Luckily we got a fair amount of cricket at the Asia Cup. If not, we would’ve looked at it some other way. More than physical, sometimes guys need a mental break, which isn’t a bad thing leading into a tournament like the World Cup. For the third game, everyone will be available. We will play our World Cup squad. This (squad for the first two ODIs) gives us a chance to give guys sitting outside a chance. It’s still a strong squad. Like I said, if we hadn’t got a lot of cricket at the Asia Cup, who knows, we may have thought differently,” Agarkar said.
The first two matches will thus provide an opportunity to Tilak Varma and Ruturaj Gaikwad, who will lead India at the Asian Games.