Despite being part of Indian squads of late, Jitesh Sharma is yet to make his T20I debut. Shashwat Kumar argues that the time to unleash him is now, especially with a series on the line against New Zealand.

Cast your mind back a year, and only the most ardent of cricket fans would have heard about Jitesh. He was scoring runs for Vidarbha, and was doing so at breakneck speed. But he did not have an active IPL contract, which, as unfortunate as it might sound, is often the lens used to gauge cricketers.

Then, IPL 2022 happened. Punjab Kings placed their faith in the wicketkeeper and he repaid it instantly. He scored 234 at a strike rate of 164, and many of these came when his team was struggling. That form translated into the most recent edition of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, where Jitesh powered Vidarbha to the semi-finals.

Despite all of that, it seemed a national call-up was far away, given that he had not been considered for any India A gigs during this period. That changed when Sanju Samson was ruled out of the series against Sri Lanka. Jitesh has been part of India’s T20I squad since, although he has had to be content with warming the bench. So, in cricketing terms, not much has changed.

With India determined to give players a long run, it seems unlikely that they will shuffle their pack for a decider, that too against New Zealand. But if they do, and hand Jitesh his T20I cap, it would make plenty of sense.

Ishan Kishan and Shubman Gill have been India’s first-choice opening pair in T20Is this year. Neither, however, has set the world ablaze. In fact, Kishan averages 15.3 in his last 13 T20I knocks and has only struck at 106. Gill, on the other hand, averages 15.2 after five T20I innings and strikes at under 130, and there has been scepticism around his suitability to the shortest format.

Thus, there is enough of a case for either of them to be dropped. If that were to happen, India can push Rahul Tripathi up to open, who has opened 25 times in T20 cricket and has scored 717 runs at a strike rate of around 135. Suryakumar Yadav can follow at No.3, with Hardik Pandya at No.4, thereby opening up a slot in the middle order for Jitesh, who can destroy spin and has been excellent at the death in recent times.

In the ongoing series, the New Zealand spinners have tied India down, making things difficult for the top and the middle orders. Attacking them may be prudent, considering they would then be forced to do something different. Jitesh excels on that front. Last year, he struck at 143 and averaged 33.5 against spin in T20 cricket.

Jitesh also hit eight fours and eight sixes off the 94 balls he faced, roughly equating to a boundary every over. He was brilliant at the death too, striking at 203 in 2022 and hitting a boundary every 3.3 balls. He is coming off a superb counterattacking 69 against Gujarat in the Ranji Trophy in his last competitive innings. It came in a different format, but the fact that that knock came on a raging turner highlights that he does not die wondering. Vidarbha won that game by 18 runs, defending 74 in the fourth innings.

If India do want to throw him into the deep end and see what he is made up of, they may not get a better opportunity. After this series, T20I cricket will be put on the backburner as attention will turn towards ODI cricket, as it often does in World Cup years. Things may change by the time the next T20I series comes around. It may seem unfair on those who are already part of the XI, but given how vocal India have been about putting players into tough situations, it would also seem broken if they do not give Jitesh the opportunity he has carved out for himself.

All he needs now is for India to take a punt on him like the Punjab Kings did before IPL 2022, and given his form, it may not be an absurd gamble.