Have India picked the wrong squad?
If the Indian Premier League part two in the United Arab Emirates is merely a warm-up for the T20 World Cup which follows almost immediately, what can we glean about the form of the two favourites, India and England?
Or rather, what will the management groups who pick their XIs make of it? At the moment, India are 3.8514/5 and England 4.804/1 and both groups will be alarmed at the mediocre performances of their chosen players.
Let's look at India first off. Ruturaj Gaikwad is the top runscorer in the tournament. Bangalore's Harshal Patel is the top wicket-taker. Sanju Samson has been in brilliant form in the middle order. Shreyas Iyer, likewise. None of them are in the India squad. Iyer is a reserve.
It could be argued that India have an embarrassment of riches. But they could merely be embarrassed by picking the wrong players, or failing to react to a tournament which will be played in exactly the same conditions and choosing to go with players who have painfully struggled.
There are locks in their XI, of course. Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli are certainties to play regardless of what they do. Likewise Jasprit Bumrah who has had an upturn of fortunes in part two.
Kohli, who will stand down as T20 captain after the tournament, is a marginal pick at the best of times. He averages 30 with a strike rate of 122 in IPL 2021. Compare those figures to Gaikwad's - 508 runs at 50 with a strike rate of 140.
The real issue for India appears to be the middle- to lower-order. They may want to choose Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan. Yadav has scores of 3, 5, 0, 8 and 33 in the UAE. He is a brilliant player of spin and should be ideally suited but form and confidence has deserted him.
Kishan is arguably a bigger issue. Yadav could be dropped with Kohli batting at No 3 and Rohit and the excellent KL Rahul opening. But the middle-order looks flaky in the extreme with Kishan there. He has struck at just 86 and averages 13 in the entire tournament. He should be nowhere near the squad. Yadav and Kishan both cannot play.
The further we go down India's possible XI, problems arise. Hardik Pandya's seemingly unending inability to bowl because of fitness worries could rob them of the all-rounder India need to balance the XI.
Even as the death power hitter India need, Hardik is not worth a spot. He is averaging 14 and has been striking at 114. It's 'don't call us...' form.
They can be thankful that Ravi Jadeja is two players in one. Hardik, pencilled in as a player of the tournament, may now not be worth a spot even in the XI. With the ball, India are also picking on historic reputation. Between 2016 and 2019, Bhuv Kumar was a lock for this squad. He had taken 71 wickets in 58 innings, averaging 23. His economy was 7.4.
Post IPL 2020 he is a different bowler. His average has more than doubled since 2020. In this tournament he has five wickets at 58 each and he costs 8.5 an over.
At least India cannot be accused of a recency bias. But surely some hard decisions are going to have to be made and it is an interesting point as to how much value 'selectors' put on this IPL stage.
Analysts will argue that the IPL is of a higher standard than international cricket. They would also say that picking a team off the back of one tournament, or even half of one, would be folly.
Yet bottom lips must surely be wobbling about the form of key men for India for their backers at least. Can anyone truly argue they are value given Messrs (or messes) Kohli, Kishan, Yadav, Hardik and Kumar. It's almost half of their squad.
England hope for Morgan resurgence
At least there are players available who India could call on if they made late decisions to wield the axe. England are not so fortunate. They are in a state.
Of chief concern is the historic form of skipper Eoin Morgan. His hitting ability has deserted him. His boundary percentage, strike rate and averages are all crashing like an 'everything must go' sale. Ironic considering his slogan at the crease was the same.
In 2021 in 30 matches Morgan averages 16 and has a strike rate of 121. There are stats which suggests he has - after all this time - been rumbled. Pacers pushing him onto the back foot have enjoyed a massive 53% dot-ball percentage.
A lame duck skipper has downed many a title aspiration. England, of course, will not drop Morgan but it is entirely possible they try to hide him down at No 7. Perhaps Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow now open the batting with Jos Buttler asked to be the finisher. It tears up carefully-constructed and now dog-eared blueprints for T20 glory.
The worries do not end there. Adil Rashid, Chris Jordan and Liam Livingstone, all considered certain starters, have been dropped by their franchises. Sam Curran can barely get a game.
The long-held suspicion (of this columnist at least) that Moeen Ali was going to have to win this tournament on his own may well be dawning on England, too. But aspirations that the IPL would prove brilliant preparation for other key players could be a false narrative.
It would be a surprise if players without the baggage of this IPL were to come in and find it a breeze. It could happen, though. That's not a disaster for England with Dawid Malan, Bairstow, Buttler, Tymal Mills, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood coming in fresh.
But, just like India, it's a stretch to reckon they are a value punt and the shrewd money, surely, will be on bigger numbers.