The Indian squad has been announced for the upcoming short tour of Zimbabwe and West Indies. While the national team will play three One Day Internationals and three T20 Internationals against Zimbabwe, they will later travel to the Caribbean islands, where they will feature in four Tests, the schedule of which is yet to be announced.
For the keen observers of the game, the selection of both squads was a step towards the future. India have had a hectic schedule of late, having played non-stop ever since South Africa arrived for a full series, in October, 2015. It doesn't get any easy going further, the West Indies tour will be followed by a run of 13 home Tests, with Bangladesh, New Zealand, England and Australia, all scheduled to visit India shores.
By the time the international calendar of 2016-17 is wound up, the next season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) arrives. As such, it was expected that an under strength squad would be picked up for the series against Zimbabwe. When the national selectors arrived for discussions at the Cricket Centre in Mumbai, the curiosity level increased manifold. Who are the players who would be rested? Will performances at the domestic level count for anything or will the IPL take centre-stage? Will the fringe players get a go? Will the domestic veterans get a final chance to prove themselves?
The Indian selectors named a 16-man squad for the Zimbabwe series and it consists of as many as six uncapped players, a mix of players who performed well, both at in the domestic stage as well as the IPL and led by one of India's greatest ever captains, MS Dhoni.
Right, the first box had been ticked. Dhoni had made himself available for the short tour and will be marshaling the young resources. KL Rahul, Jasprit Bumrah, Manish Pandey, Karun Nair, Barindar Sran, Kedar Jadhav and Ambati Rayudu were all picked, as expected. A strong season for Saurashtra saw the comeback of Jaydev Unadkat - for yet another crack at the senior level.
There are six players who could be wearing the India blue colours for the first time. These are the players who have impressed at different levels, be it Ranji Trophy, Irani Trophy or the IPL. It has been a reward for their patience, perseverance and never-give-up attitude.
At 30, he might not have been a glamorous selection, but Faiz Fazal is a story to be told. He has played a bit of IPL, with the Rajasthan Royals, but he's always been under the radar.
2015-16 perhaps was his breakthrough season. He top-scored for Vidharbha with 559 runs in the Ranji Trophy, added another 312 runs in the Vijay Hazare trophy, and made an exact 100 which helped India 'A' clinch the Deodhar trophy.
But the best was yet to come. In the Irani Trophy final, having already conceded a massive 297-run first innings deficit, Rest of India needed an improbable 480 for a come from behind victory. Nobody gave them a chance, but it was a moment to shine and Fazal took it with both hands. His 127 laid the platform for a stunning chase as his team overcame all odds to grab the cup. Fazal went unsold at the 2016 IPL auctions, but his earlier performances didn't go unnoticed.
Hailing from Haryana, 26-year-old Jayant Yadav is a reliable allrounder who bats in the middle order and bowls off-spin. Bowling on the green tracks of Lahli meant Yadav had few opportunities to impress with the ball, finishing with 19 wickets and compiling a total of 298 runs during the 2015-16 Ranji season.
However, he came into his own in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy. In six games, he grabbed 8 wickets from 45 overs, but more importantly, his economy rate of 2.77 was the second best for any bowler with a minimum of 35 overs. He followed it up with eight wickets in the Irani trophy match and was rewarded with a contract by Delhi Daredevils during the 2016 IPL auctions. He impressed in his limited opportunities with the Daredevils. An India call-up was just the icing on the cake.
Until 2014, Yuzvendra Chahal was just another leg-break bowler, regularly warming the Mumbai Indians' (MI) bench and getting the occasional one-off games. The moment of glory was to come during the 2013 Champions League T20, where, he bowled Mumbai Indians to victory. Life turned a full circle during the 2014 IPL auctions, Chahal suddenly went from bench warmer at Mumbai Indians to lead spinner at Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB).
Backed immensely by Daniel Vettori and Virat Kohli, Chahal has been one of the shining lights of the Bangalore franchise. Twenty-three wickets in 2015 saw him take RCB to the playoffs and he's currently the leading wicket-taker of this season, with 19. Having led a weak bowling attack with aplomb, his selection to the national team is a story of hard yards of grit and determination.
The 25-year old middle-order batsman is yet another player who managed to rescue his career during his stint with the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB). A product of the 2010 Under-19 Indian team, Mandeep's career headed nowhere after a disappointing tenure at Kings XI Punjab. An excellent 2015 IPL saw him get back into the reckoning and he followed it up with a decent Ranji season for Punjab. His finest moment came during the 50-over Vijay Hazare trophy, scoring 394 runs at 65.66, the most by any batsman. An injury laid him low during the 2016 IPL, but Mandeep had already made his mark by then.
KL Rahul and Karun Nair
Not much needs to be written about the other two uncapped ODI/T20I batsmen in the side to Zimbabwe - The Karnataka duo of KL Rahul (who has played Tests) and Karun Nair (who was selected as an injury replacement during India's tour to Sri Lanka last year). Both batsmen have come on the back of outstanding performances at all levels, be it in the Ranji Trophy, Vijay Hazare, the 20-over domestic tournament, Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, or the IPL. They have been on the fringes of selection for a long time and have been deserving.
The selectors have also named a 17-man squad for the four-Test series in West Indies. While most of the selection has been on expected lines, Mumbai's 24-year old pacer, Shardul Thakur, is the lone new name. Thakur comes on the back of an immensely strong Ranji season for Mumbai and was one of the main reasons for the domestic powerhouses to regain the title, their 41st.
Strongly built and aggressive in his ways, Thakur hits the deck hard and can swing the ball either ways. It was this ability which saw him end up with 41 wickets at 24.51. It wasn't a one-off season, in 2014-15, he had finished as the joint leading wicket-taker (along with R Vinay Kumar of Karnataka), with 48 wickets at 20.81. The lanky lad had been banging on the national selection door for a long while and which has now finally opened.
The opportunities have been provided for some consistent performances. It's now up to the players to make the most of it. For some, this might just be the gateway for something special, for others, it might just turn out to be one-off chance to get their names in headlines. Can the likes of Fazal and Chahal make the most of an unexpected opening? We will get to know soon.