The curious case of Shikha Pandey and other talking points as India face South Africa

Shikha Pandey sizes up her target area Annesha Ghosh

The announcement of India Women's squads for their first series in a year, against South Africa, was notable both in its timing - it came after both teams had arrived in the host city, Lucknow - and the make-up of the squads itself. ESPNcricinfo dissects the 18-member squads for the five ODIs and three-T20I series picked by the new selection committee comprising chief selector Neetu David, V Kalpana, Mithu Mukherjee, Arati Vaidya, and Renu Margrate

The curious case of Shikha Pandey

Thirty-one-year-old Pandey has been India's leading wicket-taker in ODIs since her debut in August 2014, with 73 strikes at an economy of 3.94. Her 25 wickets in the format during this period are the most by any bowler, across teams, against South Africa. In T20Is, she has spearheaded India's pace contingent since Jhulan Goswami's retirement from the format in 2018. Pandey was India's second-highest wicket-taker at the 2020 T20 World Cup, with seven wickets in five games at an average of 19.42 and economy of 6.85. In her last nine ODI appearances, she went wicketless just once. The experienced Pandey-Goswami bowling tandem, along with the spinners, has been a big key to India's success in ODIs. And yet, Pandey was not deemed good enough to warrant a place in either format for the South Africa series.

With numbers and experience to back her case, the 50-over World Cup in March-April and the Commonwealth Games T20 tournament in July-August next year, her exclusion across formats in India's first series since the 2020 T20 World Cup leaves a gaping hole in the pace department. It also robs India of the safety net that she has traditionally offered in ODIs every time Goswami, 38, has been grounded by injury.

New faces emerge, with eye on 2022-23 mega seasons

ESPNcricinfo understands the new selection committee's thrust on uncapped players for this series stems from the intent to create a robust bench leading in to next year's ODI World Cup and the Commonwealth Games as well as the 2023 T20 World Cup in South Africa. Among the six uncapped players included in the two squads, some featured in the India A and B squads against Bangladesh last year, while a few others were picked in the three squads for the 2020 Women's T20 Challenge that was held in the UAE in November. None of them, however, could make it to the starting XI.

Yastika Bhatia, a solid left-hand opening batter from Baroda, could be a handy pick at the top of the order and back-up to left-hand opening mainstay Smriti Mandhana in the long run, while Swetha Verma is one of the two designated wicketkeepers, alongside the experienced Sushma Verma, named in the ODI squad. Delhi allrounder Ayushi Soni, described by her Supernovas captain Harmanpreet Kaur ahead of the 2020 T20 Challenge as a player with promise, also features in the T20I squad. Allrounder Simran Bahadur, who has been part of the India Emerging team at the Asia Cup in 2019, made it to the T20I side, while Karnataka left-arm pacer Monica Patel, who featured in the India B squad against Bangladesh last year, and legspin-bowling allrounder C Prathyusha have also earned maiden national call-ups across formats.

ODIs elude Shafali Verma

A revelation since her debut in the T20 Challenge for the Mithali Raj-led Velocity in 2019, the 17-year-old Verma, who was fast-tracked into the T20I side later that year, has impressed with her power-striking at the top of the order and has quickly made her name as one of the mainstays in the T20I squad. Verma, still uncapped in ODIs, single-handedly ripped apart attacks during the T20 World Cup in Australia - where she finished as India's highest run-getter with 163 runs - and played a crucial role in India's runners-up finish, striking the ball at 158, the highest in the tournament among batters with 50 runs or more.

While Verma's big hits are tailor-made for the T20 format, her firepower could provide a new dimension at the top of the order for India in ODIs, if India are to at some point inject impetus following the sedate starts Punam Raut and Priya Punia - both retained in the ODI squad - typically provide. "She could be a good addition to our ODI set-up, especially if she is able to give us the kind of starts she's been giving in T20Is, and if she can play a little longer, because the two formats are very different," ODI captain Raj told The Cricket Monthly soon after the T20 World Cup last year. "Before the World Cup [in New Zealand], if we get those three, four tours, we will have the opportunity to see how she approaches ODIs and we will be able to take a call on how we would integrate her into the ODI team and when to do that."

Mansi Joshi, Sushma Verma return; Taniya Bhatia dropped

Right-arm medium-pacer Joshi last played for India in November 2019. A spate of injuries - mainly stress fractures that have been troubling her since 2018 - kept her out of the 2020 T20 World Cup squad, and while she was plotting her return from the layoff during the T20 Challenge last year, she tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of departure. The new selection panel, however, has shown faith in the 27-year old, who was also part of India's 2017 World Cup contingent that finished runners-up to England, and has named her in both the squads. If injury-free, Joshi, in Pandey's absence, could, along with fellow right-arm pacer Arundhati Reddy, share the bulk of the fast-bowling duties in T20Is, with Patel also in the mix.

Meanwhile, Sushma, who was not part of India's 2018 or 2020 T20 World Cup squads after being dropped due to poor form, has replaced wicketkeeper Bhatia in both the squads. Sushma last represented India in the shortest format in December 2016 and in ODIs in April 2018. She, has, however, chipped in with match-winning cameos in the last two editions of the T20 Challenge, making a vital 33-ball 34 in the 2020 tournament opener.

While Bhatia has topped the T20I wicketkeeping dismissals chart since her international debut in February 2018 and has been India's first-choice wicketkeeper across formats, her form with the bat, arguably a result in part of the lack of clarity in her batting position, appears to have been the primary reason behind her exclusion. Notably, her stellar performance with the gloves was pivotal to India's maiden run to T20 World Cup final last year. Her returns with the bat have been, however, only 78 runs in 12 innings in T20Is since 2019, having been frequently shunted up and down the order. The 24-year-old Nuzhat Parween, who has been in the fringes for quite a while, and 16-year-old Richa Ghosh are the other wicketkeeping options in the T20I squad.