Bangalore: The national selection panel laid the base for India's campaign in the International Cricket Council Champions Trophy 2013, to be played in England and Wales in June, but through their choices indicated that the real prize was the World Cup in 2015.
The decision that stood out was the one to leave out Yuvraj Singh, who was player of the tournament in the 2011 World Cup that India won, and Gautam Gambhir, who top-scored for India with 97 in the final of the same tournament. Just two years since that balmy April 2 in Mumbai, the selectors have made so many changes that only three of the men who played in that final - Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina - are still in the mix.
On the face of it, the decision to leave Yuvraj and Gambhir out seems to have been made with a view to forming a core group that will play in the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. In recent ODI matches, neither Yuvraj (160 runs from 8 matches since his comeback) nor Gambhir (249 runs from last 10 ODIs) have lived up to their high standards.
But, come 2015, neither will be in need of a walking stick yet. They will both be 33, which is hardly an age at which their careers need to be ended for them. Yuvraj may have had a hit-and-miss Test career and struggled with form in the Indian Premier League season six, but he is a colossus in the Indian ODI cricket firmament. After Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar, no player has had as much of an impact as Yuvraj. His mastery of innings construction is unmatched, and the power he wields means that he is that rare player who can take on the best bowling at the death and score at a brisk pace. While his spin bowling may not be missed too much outside the subcontinent, and his fielding has been on the wane, purely for his batting skills and his situational alertness, Yuvraj is the kind of player you want in your dressing-room.
If the selectors have indeed picked the Champions Trophy squad with an eye on the 2015 World Cup, it makes little sense to suggest that Yuvraj's recent sluggishness - and let's not forget that he was seriously ill not that long ago - plays a part. After all, he can do all the work he wants off the field, in the gym and on the track, but the only thing that will bring Yuvraj back up to his best is getting matchplay of the highest level under his belt. That Rohit Sharma, the perennial underachiever from Mumbai, has got the nod ahead of Yuvraj tells you that the selectors have not been entirely ruthless when picking this squad.
The case of Gambhir is slightly different. While he is clearly not at his best - the concentration and focus of his 11-hour vigil at Napier in 2009 have deserted him - and has some issues to work out technically, he has shown he is the man for a big occasion. The World Cup final aside, Gambhir was also the top-scorer, with 75, in the final of the only ICC World Twenty20 that India won. Gambhir is a player who absorbs pressure well, and given the importance of steady, if not spectacular starts in swinging and seaming conditions in England, he is ahead of the competition. Murali Vijay has made the most of his return in Tests, thanks to some resolute self-denial, but whether he will approach ODIs in a similar manner or return to his old ways remains to be seen.
What queers the pitch further is the fact that Gambhir has been named in the probables for a tri-series in the West Indies soon after. Does this suggest the selectors have so little faith in those they have picked for the Champions Trophy that they expect Gambhir to reclaim a spot when one of them fails?
If two omissions caught the eye, two well-earned recalls will warm the hearts of those who champion domestic cricket in India. Dinesh Karthik last played for India in 2010, but the manner in which he has focused on getting his batting just right in the meantime has been impressive. Karthik has always had the goods, and it is no secret that Sandeep Patil, the chairman of the selection panel, was an unabashed admirer of Karthik years ago when the two were associated with the India A team. With Karthik in the squad, India have both a reserve wicketkeeper and batsman, freeing up an extra spot.
That spot has gone to Amit Mishra, the legspinner once thought to be too slow through the air to be a genuine threat in the limited-overs game. With three hat-tricks in the IPL, Mishra has shown that he's no one-trick pony, and while some will be critical of the notice the selections have taken of the tournament, there's no running away from the fact that it is a reasonable platform in which to showcase your talent. Had Mishra performed in the IPL alone, his inclusion might have been questionable, but those who have watched domestic cricket will be aware of his massive contribution to the Haryana team.
Before Indian fans rejoice over the rarity that Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Vinay Kumar are fit at the same time, they would be well advised to take a moment to think about the absence of Zaheer Khan. In English conditions, Zaheer is just about the ideal bowler to have leading your attack, but the fact is, even with him working as hard as possible to regain fitness, his body has not responded sufficiently for him to play a part in the Royal Challengers Bangalore's IPL campaign until so far. With Zaheer out, a case could have been made for the experience and sheer cunning of Praveen Kumar, who lost out to an Irfan Pathan who has managed just 7 wickets and 77 runs from 10 IPL matches.
The Indian squad that the selectors have picked may well be good enough to win the Champions Trophy, but it's hard to ignore the feeling that the omissions of Yuvraj and Gambhir are a little more than change for change's sake.