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What Is India’s Best T20 XI?

CricViz analysis of the players in contention for India’s T20I side. The accompanying podcast is available below.

TOP ORDER

Virat Kohli 

Kohli is not as good as many proclaim he is – he is certainly not the best T20 batsman in the world. However, nor is he as bad as some hipsters will have you believe. He lacks raw power and his recent strike rate—hovering around 130 since the start of last year—is lower than the modern game demands, but he remains one of the world’s best wicket preventers: since 2016 his balls per wicket of 35.8 is the best in the world. Kohli has combined this elite stabilising presence with a True Run Rate of +0.95 above expectation. His caution can at times be excessive but there is no better anchor batsman in the game. 

Rohit Sharma 

After Kohli Rohit is the most hailed of India’s white ball batsmen—but like Kohli—his reputation is based largely on his ODI exploits & his T20 record is mixed: internationally he’s excellent but in the IPL in particular he has been underwhelming which begs the question whether his returns could be bettered by those outperforming him in the IPL, although he has suffered from selflessly moving around Mumbai’s batting order. 

Rohit’s approach is boundary-orientated: he has the second highest dot ball percentage among India’s top order options in the IPL since 2016 but a healthy best fours per six ratio – which means he’s destructive at his best but can get bogged down at his worst. His long-standing issues with leg spin still persist. Overall Rohit’s more of a shoo-in than he probably should be. 

KL Rahul 

In the 2018 IPL, KL Rahul was the perfect T20 opener – aggressive, consistent, scoring substantial and important runs. Averaging over 50, scoring at 9.5rpo (strike rate 158), he started like a house on fire and then kept it up when the field went back. Since then, he’s changed his approach somewhat, lowering his intent in an effort to increase his consistency – a method endorsed by all the anchors in this India set-up. That may have been an attempt to fit into India’s XI better but in fact it’s left him at the mercy of form, given that now he’s not different to Rohit and Kohli, he has to keep being better. 

Arguably with the highest talent ceiling of any top order option, Rahul’s weakness of late has been slowing down outside the Powerplay, particularly against spin. Last season, no other opener had a worse record in that regard, and it leaves him vulnerable to taking strike from more destructive players who excel in this phase. Yet in reality, that criticism can be levelled at the other established ‘Big Three’ openers, and Rahul’s upside is greater.

Shikhar Dhawan 

Dhawan forms an interesting comparison with Rahul. While the Punjab opener has become more restrained after an explosive start, Dhawan has gone in the opposite direction. After being criticised by his Delhi Capitals coach Ricky Ponting – “Ideally Dhawan should score faster” – Dhawan has kicked his scoring rate up to 8.6rpo, from 7.4rpo, and it’s helped his case for Indian selection. Our shot-type and connection metrics show that Dhawan has consistently been more aggressive than other top order options in the IPL, and India would rightly be tempted by the variety he offers in terms of pacing in the top three. Equally, the added variety of his left-handedness is not to be ignored, given that his recent scoring rates against SLA (9.5rpo) and leg spin (9rpo) may prevent opposition captains from targeting the right-handers with guys turning the ball right-to-left. 

Suryakumar Yadav 

Part of the Mumbai Indians side who have won two of the last three IPLs, Suryakumar Yadav has yet to be capped at international level, but that looks set to change. A stylish, classical top order batsman but with a level of intent which marks him out, ‘SKY’ gives India a modern-upgrade on a role where they lack variety. His recent IPL record against spin – averaging 50+ and scoring at 7.7rpo – is matched with high performance against high pace. That range of skills is rare. With India still unsure of what they want from their No.4 (neither the naked intent of Samson or Pant, nor the ‘fourth anchor’ of Iyer), Suryakumar may be the perfect compromise. 

Ishan Kishan 

After bursting onto the scene in the 2017 IPL Kishan delivered on his promise in last season’s IPL with a breakthrough campaign for Mumbai, returning 516 runs at a strike rate of 145. The left-handed pocket dynamo is particularly strong against spin but he’s shown significant improvement against the short ball of late and his record against high pace is elite – an encouraging sign ahead of a graduation to the international game. Kishan can bat in the middle order but has opened in 60% of his T20 innings. Unlike most of India’s top order options Kishan is both left-handed and displays new-age intent: he is more of a Powerplay-exploiter than foundation-layer and provides India with a different strategic option. 

Mayank Agarwal 

A regular in the Test side over the past few years, Mayank Agarwal has rarely been a force in T20 cricket – until the 2020 IPL. Averaging 42.40 and scoring at 9.4rpo, Agarwal performed outstandingly, catching the eye with his game against spin. Flying along at over 10rpo against slower bowlers through the middle, Agarwal formed a stark contrast to his Kings XI Punjab opening partner KL Rahul. Of all the top order options we’ve discussed, Agarwal is probably the furthest from selection, but another IPL in a similar mould to last year’s would offer India another distinct choice – an opener who can accelerate against spin when the field goes back. 

Shubman Gill, Devdutt Paddikal, Nitish Rana and Prithvi Shaw 

Given the abundance of options at the top of the order it will take something special for a new face to force their way in. Shubman Gill and Duvdutt Padikkal are the most classical of the fringe players which typically helps Indians but in this instance means they are not offering much different from the likes of Kohli and Rohit, although at least Padikkal is a left-hander. Prithvi Shaw and Nitish Rana are more aggressive but both of them need to improve their consistency & game against the short ball; Rana does provide a left-handed option.


MIDDLE ORDER

Hardik Pandya

Quite simply, Hardik Pandya is one of the best white ball hitters in the world. His scoring rate in the last two IPL seasons is bettered only by Andre Russell, and his excellence (alongside Kieron Pollard) at the death has been a key part of Mumbai’s dominance in the last few seasons. Tall, with long levers and fast hands, Hardik broke into international cricket with his ability to destroy spin bowling, but in the last two seasons his scoring rate against pace is actually more impressive (11.8rpo v 9.6rpo. Nobody in India comes close to his scoring rate.

His lack of bowling recently is a concern. While he would undoubtedly make the side as a batsman alone, his ability to deliver sharp spells in the middle overs, as a sixth bowler who can bat in the top six, is valuable – and all but unique for this group of Indian players. Yet injuries saw him play as a batsman-only in the 2020 IPL, and he’s bowled just once in his last 20 T20 matches. While Mumbai can balance their side without his bowling, it’s a much tougher ask for India. They’ll be sweating on his fitness – other than Jasprit Bumrah, no player is more important to their success at the World Cup.

Rishabh Pant 

A once in a generation talent, the 23 year-old left-hander manages to combine elite power and new-age intent with exceptional control and strength against both pace & spin. Pant burst onto the scene in both red and white ball cricket in 2016 and registered a seminal IPL campaign in 2018, plundering 684 runs at a strike rate of 173. International debuts have followed in all three formats but Pant’s revolutionary approach has divided opinion and invited scrutiny and he has not received the backing that his talent deserves and has struggled to replicate his IPL form at international level. Since Pant made his IPL debut in 2016 no Indian batsman to have faced more than 100 balls has a better True Run Rate than Pant’s +1.62 RPO but for India he has scored -0.51 below expectation. A poor 2020 IPL season by his excellent standards—although still better than most of India’s alternative options—was all it took for Pant to be left out of India’s squad for the series in Australia. It illustrates India’s cross-format confusion that three excellent months in red ball cricket looks set to earn him a run in the T20 side once more. 

Shreyas Iyer 

Shreyas Iyer tends to bat at No.3 for Delhi Capitals, but has consistently been used in the middle order for the national side. Only four of his 24 T20I appearances have been at first drop, compared to more than half of his IPL appearances in the last three seasons. Iyer is naturally quite a slow scorer, going at 7.30 rpo in recent seasons, and nobody in the selection pool has a lower True Run Rate than Iyer’s -0.10. While he matches it with a positive True Dismissal Rate, demonstrating his anchoring capabilities and a strong game against spin, his issues against the short ball limit him. A very impressive ODI record has, in textbook fashion for this era of Indian selection, boosted his “credentials” in the shortest format and he’s got a decent chance of slotting in as a ‘bridge’ player at four between the top order anchors and middle order hitters, whether he should, however, is more dubious. 

Sanju Samson 

Samson is perhaps the most unfulfilled talent in India. A classical player who passes the ‘eye test’ with flying colours, Samson looks brilliant: technically sound against both pace and spin and robust in defence and attack. More recently Samson has added to his game with huge power. By our shot-type and connection metrics Samson is mixing with the very best in the IPL. However, the 26 year-old has not yet translated his raw ability into consistent performances in the IPL and has not seized his very limited opportunities at international level. Samson has been left out of India’s latest squad and will need a stellar IPL campaign to put himself back in the frame. Samson’s power means his best route into the side may actually be in the middle order rather than at the top where he bats for Rajasthan. 

Dinesh Karthik

Wicketkeeper batsman Dinesh Karthik appears to have fallen out of favour in the Indian camp, having not made an appearance in any format since the World Cup semi-final defeat in 2019. While his form has fluctuated of late, a good 2019 season followed by a disappointing 2020 (during which he lost the Kolkata Knight Riders captaincy to Eoin Morgan), Karthik remains one of the few Indian batsmen who specialises in batting down the order. The volume (and rate) of late runs he has scored should not be discarded; his scoring rate in particular is excellent, above 12rpo in recent seasons. More of a 360° hitter than the alternative options, he offers a different challenge for opposition bowlers, and is a good wicket-keeper backup in a squad which could lack specialists.

Shivam Dube 

Pace bowling all rounders are a very rare breed in India and the combination of good form at state level—albeit primarily in List A cricket—and injuries to Hardik have seen Dube get himself in and around India’s T20 squads in the last few years. The 27 year-old left-hander won himself a contract at RCB after a series of cameos in the 2019 Vijay Hazare Trophy but struggled in his two seasons there before being released and re-signed by Rajasthan this year. He is no more than an emergency bowling option but he does boast genuine power—he’s hit more T20 sixes than fours—and provides a point of difference as a left-hander. As long as Hardik is fit Dube will find it hard to get in the team. 

Manish Pandey, Vijay Shankar, Abdul Samad and Riyan Parag 

India’s proclivity for anchor batsmen and batsmen who can bowl has typified their T20 selection in this World Cup cycle and no two players better embody that than Manish Pandey and Vijay Shankar. Manish is an archetypal anchor but pales in comparison with the likes of Kohli and Rohit and has struggled to translate his excellent form in the Syed Mushtaq Ali to higher levels. The selection of Kishan and Suryakumar in India’s most recent squads may spell an end to Manish’s World Cup hopes. Shankar is a useful role player at domestic level but surplus to requirements given India’s talent pool. Two players at the other end of their careers are the 19 year-old Riyan Parag and the 20 year-old Abdul Samad. Both remain very raw and inexperienced but they are part of India’s next-gen whose range against pace and spin is exciting.


LOWER ORDR

Washington Sundar

Enjoying a boost to his profile as a result of his Test performances, Washington Sundar has been performing well for Royal Challengers Bangalore for the last few seasons. A high-release off spinner, in recent seasons Sundar has specialised in bowling during the Powerplay. He is an excellent run saver, his IPL economy below 7rpo against both LHB and RHB, but a career strike rate of 27.2 (True Strike Rate +3.7) does demonstrate a lack of attacking skills.

While he has opened the batting to great effect in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, his batting in IPL cricket has been solid, rather than spectacular. Averaging 16.80 and scoring at 7.8rpo (albeit 10rpo at the death) is a good start, but he is not a genuine all-rounder as of yet. However, India have backed his batting, moving him from No.8 to No.7 during Ravindra Jadeja’s absence from the side. A level below Jadeja as a hitter, the fact he can bat there gives India options in terms of matchups, should they wish to play Ashwin alongside Sundar and target a left-hander heavy side.

Axar Patel

Another player who has excelled recently in Test cricket, Axar Patel has been a very strong T20 player for several years. A reliable, defensive left-arm finger spinner, Axar is an excellent run saver, recording an economy of 6.7rpo in the last two IPL seasons, his True Economy the best of any spin option bar Washington Sundar. Similarly to the off spinner, Axar pays for this control with a lack of attacking threat, and stands as the least threatening bowler from the spin options India have at their disposal. His batting is not the most explosive, but selecting him at No.8 represents very secure depth, and he can offer support to the set batsmen.

Ravi Ashwin

As shown on the graphic above, Ashwin’s T20 record is by no means as imperious as his Test record. Both his economy and strike rate are almost exactly in line with the average for IPL spinners in recent years. Like Sundar, has specialised as a Powerplay spinner in recent seasons, but performs the role rather differently; Ashwin offers a greater attacking threat in the Powerplay than almost any other Indian spinner, striking every 19 balls in the last two IPLs. 

Ravi Jadeja 

Jadeja is something of an enigma in white ball cricket: capable with bat, ball and in the field there’s a strong case that he should be more established in the team than he actually is. His brilliance with the ball in Tests can mask the fact that in shorter formats he is notably less effective: in two of his last four IPL seasons he’s returned economy rates of at least 8.75 and in that period averages 68.00 and concedes runs at 9.13 RPO v left-handers. Jadeja’s case for selection was made significantly stronger by his excellent IPL season with the bat where he scored at a strike rate of 172, comfortably the fastest he’s ever scored thanks to new found power. Jadeja’s fielding is genuinely outstanding and contributes enough fielding impact for it to be a worthwhile addition to any team. Ultimately though his selection should be determined by his contributions with bat and ball. 

Rahul Tewatia 

A left-handed power-hitter and leg spinner, Tewatia fulfills two of the most in-demand roles in T20 and could be a hugely exciting addition to India’s T20 set-up. Tewatia was a breakout star in the 2020 IPL where he scored 255 runs at a strike rate of 139 and took 10 wickets at an economy rate of 7.08; a season that surpassed what many thought him capable of. If Tewatia can sustain this level of performance he will be hard to leave out but it’s a very big if for a player who has been solid without being spectacular for much of his career to date. 

Of India’s all round options Tewatia is the most destructive with the bat—particularly against pace—but the least proven with the ball. Unlike Sundar, Axar, Ashwin and Jadeja, Tewatia very rarely bowls in the Powerplay and is almost exclusively a middle overs operator. 

Krunal Pandya 

Until recently Krunal was mounting the most credible body of work to fill this role. More reliable with the ball than Jadeja and more destructive with the bat than Ashwin, Axar and Sundar, Krunal was striking an appealing balance between bat and ball. However, since the 2019 IPL his form with the ball has deteriorated dramatically, illustrated by his average rising from 26.38 to 52.80 across a large sample of 30 matches. Krunal is still young enough and talented enough to make a return but with competition for places fierce it will take something special, particularly given it took him so long to win over selectors in the first place and Tewatia has seemingly vaulted above him while Jadeja is injured. Krunal’s batting is second only to Tewatia’s in this group but his bowling is simply not good enough right now. 


SPINNERS

Yuzvendra Chahal

Chahal is the standout white ball spinner in India. As a bowler doing much of his work at the Chinnaswamy, he’s grown into an attacking spinner used to fighting fire with fire, and his strike rate in the last two seasons is the best of India’s spin options. Like almost every leg spinner, he’s more effective against right-handers (7.2rpo economy rate v 8.8rpo for LHB), but India’s variety of spin options allows for this. While his (and Bumrah’s) batting does impact the construction of the attack, his bowling is more than worth the trade-off; Chahal is one of the few absolute locks in the Indian side. 

Varun Chakravarthy 

When Sunil Narine began to lose form in the 2020 IPL, Kolkata Knight Riders were a bit stuck – handily, they had a ready-made replacement on hand. Varun Chakravarthy, a mystery spinner who made a splash in this season for KKR taking 17 wickets at a strike rate of just 18.3. While the trajectory for spinners of his type tends to be early success, followed by batsmen becoming familiar with their variations, Chakravarthy is still very much in the early days of his exposure to top cricket. If the honeymoon period extends to the World Cup, then India may see him as a natural back-up for Chahal as the attacking spinner.

Kuldeep Yadav 

Between the end of the 2016 World Cup and the 2019 IPL, Kuldeep emerged as one of the world’s very best T20 bowlers: averaging 20.86 in all T20 and an astonishing 12.97 at international level. Alongside Chahal, he formed an unrivalled wrist spin duo that promised to be the heart of India’s World Cup plans. However, things have unravelled very quickly for the left-arm wrist spinner who experienced a crisis of form in the 2019 IPL which reached a nadir when Moeen Ali reduced Kuldeep to tears in a brutal assault. Since then he has battled for form and rhythm and has now lost his place as KKR’s second spinner and his average has more than doubled to 42.33. Kuldeep’s issue appears to have been that as he has become more familiar batsmen have become more adept at picking him from the hand and his very slow speed through the air (he is the second slowest spin bowler in the CricViz database) has left him with absolutely no margin for error. Still young there is plenty of time for a resurgence but it feels a long way away right now. 

Ravi Bishnoi, Shreyas Gopal, Rahul Chahar 

As is often the case, India have a good supply of domestic spin bowlers who could force their way into the reckoning with strong IPL campaigns. Rahul Chahar is the only one of this trio to have played internationally, after his breakthrough 2019 IPL was rewarded with a solitary cap. Chahar, like another rising star, Ravi Bishnoi is marked out by being a new-age leg spinner who bowls flatter and faster, which provides a point of difference to Chahal’s slower, loopier trajectory. Bishnoi doubles down on these modern trends by also bowling a high proportion of wrong’uns; while Chahar sticks to his more traditional stock ball. Another outside chance is Rajasthan Royals leggie Shreyas Gopal, who is slightly older at 27 and more similar to Chahal in style. Gopal had a poor 2020 IPL but he’s an extremely attacking bowler and particularly effective in the Powerplay. 


QUICKS

Jasprit Bumrah

The best T20 bowler in the world, Jasprit Bumrah is India’s most important player. His record is astonishing: an IPL economy of 6.7rpo in the last two years, alongside a strike rate of 15.8. His True Economy Rate, -1.1, is the best for any established seamer in the history of the format. Bumrah has been the attack leader for the world’s best T20 side (Mumbai Indians) for several years now, and things are no different in international colours. He is the only world-class seam option India have available to them, but his versatility in terms of use throughout the innings means he covers a multitude of cracks. Alongside Chahal, Bumrah is an absolute lock for the World Cup attack.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar 

After the 2017 IPL Bhuvneshwar was one of the world’s leading top and tail bowlers: capable of swinging the new ball and nailing his yorkers at the death Bhuvneshwar was the perfect partner to Bumrah. However, since then Bhuvi has faced a string of fitness issues which have seen him play just eight games for India since 2018 and new faces come into the fray. A fractional drop off in pace—perhaps caused by his injuries—has shrunk his margin for error on his yorker which has seen him turn to his slower balls increasingly often instead, but without much reward – his death overs economy rate in the IPL has risen from 8.46 before 2018 to 9.76 since then. The 31 year-old still possesses immaculate control and his beautiful wrist position enables him to swing the new ball. Even if his best days at the death are behind him Bhuvneshwar still has plenty to offer and his useful batting helps lengthen India’s batting order. A return to fitness and form could be hugely important. 

Deepak Chahar

In 2018, Deepak Chahar emerged as key part of Chennai Super Kings’ title charge. Taking the new ball and extracting substantial swing, Chahar bowled in a regimented structure and often bowled three overs on the bounce at the start of the innings. In recent seasons he’s been used throughout the innings and has developed as a useful death bowler, recording a death economy of 8.3rpo in the last two seasons. This added flexibility saw him brought into the India set-up, and has been a squad (and team) regular since August 2019. His improved performance at the death does seem to have coincided with a drop off in his new ball record; in 2020, he took 7 Powerplay wickets in 14 IPL matches. At his peak, Deepak was an excellent foil for Bumrah, but in his current guise things are less clear – though he’s probably still the frontrunner to take that second seamer spot.

T Natarajan

Natarajan’s breakthrough season in IPL 2020 was one of the feel-good stories of the year. A left-arm death bowler, and a yorker specialist, the Sunrisers Hyderabad quick progressed through the ranks at remarkable speed, fast-tracked into the India XI after just one full season. While his left-arm angle does offer a point of difference, Natarajan’s numbers are not as strong as his reputation; both his True Economy and Strike Rate reveal a player performing almost exactly as the average, and many have been seduced by his use of the traditional defensive tactic, the yorker. Skewing towards the death, Natarajan would in theory allow India to use Bumrah more fluidly throughout the innings. 

Navdeep Saini 

Saini is perhaps the most exciting of India’s emerging crop of quicks. Capable of bowling well in excess of 140 kph, hammering away at hard lengths and nailing his yorkers at the death, Saini provides India with the option of a middle and death overs enforcer that no other player offers. Following a breakthrough IPL in 2019 Saini made a brilliant start to his T20 international career later that year and has now played ten T20s for India and taken 13 wickets at an economy rate of 7.15 and a strike rate of 15.1. He struggled badly in the 2020 IPL, picking up just six wickets in 13 games at an average of 63.16 and India will be desperate for him to regain his form given his rare pace and natural lengths.

Mohammad Shami 

Since the start of 2018 Mohammad Shami is the second most capped pace bowler across all formats for India after Bumrah and as such is perhaps the most high profile of those vying to join Bumrah in the team. However only five of his 57 appearances have come in the T20 format. Shami was able to relaunch his ODI career on the back of his red ball success & will hope his ODI exploits and 39 wickets in his last two IPL campaigns can do the same for T20. Having historically struggled in the Powerplay Shami’s ability to move the new ball brought rewards in the most recent IPL where he took seven wickets in the phase but a strike rate of 26.5 in the phase still provides room for improvement. Shami operates around 140 kph and does have a good yorker but his T20 returns remain mixed. 

Shardul Thakur

One of only a handful of Indian seamers whose batting is part of their appeal, Shardul Thakur has often been used as bowling all-rounder in T20Is, coming in at No.8. That batting versatility explains in large part why he’s played so much for India, as his bowling record in IPL cricket is very poor. In the last two seasons, he’s taken 18 wickets in 18 games, with an economy of 8.9rpo and a strike rate of 21 – both worse than the average. Thakur is a versatile bowler, able to swing the new ball as well as come back at the death, but he performs neither role with particular aplomb (death economy 9.6rpo, and a Powerplay strike rate of 35 in the last two years). India seem to like the depth he gives to the batting line-up, but you would think he’s behind Deepak, Saini, and Natarajan in the pecking order.

Mohammad Siraj

As a T20 bowler Mohammad Siraj has often flattered to deceive. His IPL record, going at 9.1rpo and with 12 Powerplay wickets in 25 matches is not what you’d want from a top level swing bowler, but Siraj has shown sparks of what he could offer at his best. His spell of 4-2-8-3 against KKR last season was record breaking, but more importantly showed that a talented young red ball seamer was able to bring some of his skills into the T20 game. He’s a fair way from the XI right now, but given how quickly he’s acclimatised to Test cricket, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him move into more genuine contention were he to become a more consistent new ball threat.

Sandeep Sharma, Khaleel Ahmed, Shivam Mavi, Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Prasidh Krishna, Kartik Tyagi

India have a whole hoard of quicks not in the current squad who could conceivably force their way into the reckoning with strong IPL campaigns. Sandeep Sharma is one of the IPL’s most consistent bowlers, an expert with the new ball and increasingly adept at the death. His SRH teammate Khaleel Ahmed provides a rare left-arm option but he has been displaced for India and SRH by Natarajan’s rise. The KKR kids Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Shivam Mavi and Prasidh Krishna all boast decent pace for their age and Nagarkoti and Mavi can contribute with the bat as well. Perhaps the most exciting of the youngsters is Rajasthan’s Kartik Tyagi who is only 19 years old but can exceed 145 kph and has displayed prowess at the death. 

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