India is back at the helm of Asian cricket after eight long years. India’s lower order showed character in chasing down Bangladesh’s modest total in the final, under intense pressure. But sadly, the win also exposed the champion side’s soft underbelly — its middle-order.
The number two one-day international (ODI) cricket team in the world, India opens its campaign in the World Cup of 2019 with a match against South Africa, at the Rose Bowl, Southampton on 5 June. The much awaited event is only eight months away — and closer than you think. Cricket fans would therefore suppose that the Indian selectors would have, by now, closed in on a squad they think could bring the coveted trophy back to India. I, for one, don’t believe so.
Even if Virat Kohli is added to the 11 that played in the Asia Cup final, India’s middle-order looks fragile. Therefore, MSK Prasad and Co. have a lot of introspection to do before the team for the World Cup is finalised. With only 21 more ODI matches to be played before travelling to England and Wales for the World Cup, one would have expected that the core of the Indian squad would surely have been identified; especially the middle order.
The ODI series against the itinerant West Indies squad, in October-November this year, won’t be of much help in assessing talent. One reason is the standard of the opposition. Another, the pitch/climatic conditions in India are nowhere close to those encountered in England. Therefore, the selectors will only get a more realistic appraisal of what the team can do when it travels to the antipodes from November 2018 to January 2019.
They would also know that by the time the Indian team was selected for the trips to Australia and New Zealand, there would be no scope — and time — left for experimentation. Looking to meld the squad into a strong, fighting unit while Down Under, the Indian team management would look to have a virtual World Cup squad playing against the Australians and the New Zealanders.
In February and March, next year, the Indian selectors will get a chance to review the team’s performances in the antipodes, when India plays five ODIs against Australia and three ODIs against Zimbabwe, both at home. With only a couple of months to go for the World Cup at that time, there will hardly be any scope for changes.
In my opinion, therefore, the Indian squad that plays ODIs in Australia and New Zealand between November 2018 and January 2019 will be the team that will play the World Cup in June-July 2019. If at all there is need for a change, it will be a bowler here or a batsman there.
With that in view, it may seem amazing that only three players actually walk into the Indian ODI side, as of today: Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah. Kohli, arguably the best batsman in contemporary cricket, is an automatic choice along with Bumrah, perhaps the number one limited overs bowler of recent times. The talented opener, Sharma has the ability to take away a game from the opposition with his batting alone. Once he gets his eye in, he scores big hundreds; ‘daddy’ hundreds that they are now called!
Shikhar Dhawan, on the other hand, has done reasonably well in the Asia Cup but failed to convert good starts in the ODI series in England. When Sharma fell early, at Lord’s and at Headingley, after that brilliant hundred at Trent Bridge, Dhawan, with scores of 40, 36 and 44 in the three matches could have helped India consolidate; he didn’t. Despite that, he will probably be the first choice opening partner for Sharma in the World Cup.
Considered to be one of India’s finest talents in recent years and even described as ‘the next big thing’, KL Rahul disappointed in England. He was all at sea against the seaming ball. Yet, he will push Dhawan for a place in the side as the second opener. Another batsman, who could stake a claim at least as the reserve opener, is Mayank Agarwal. He has been in tremendous form of late and has done exceedingly well for India’s reserve teams. Though it seems that the selectors may have turned a blind eye towards his performances, I expect him to get a break against the West Indies in ODIs, this October. I won’t be surprised, though, if young Prithvi Shaw is thrown into the deep end of the pool too.
The number three spot in the Indian batting order is taken. It belongs to Kohli.
After Sharma, Dhawan and Kohli, who? That is one question that will worry the selectors from now until the team departs for England in May 2019. Several players have been tried out. Amongst them, only Ambati Rayudu seems to have a foot in the door for a place in the side with some impressive performances in the Asia Cup. In 40 ODIs, till date, he averages an impressive 49.2.
The others in the running for middle order slots are Suresh Raina, with more than 5,600 runs in ODIs, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav — useful as a bowler too — Dinesh Karthik, Ajinkya Rahane and Shreyas Iyer. As of now, Rayudu and Jadhav — because of his ability to pick vital wickets, look to have an edge over the others for the number four and five slots in the batting order.
Looking at how the India middle order has performed over the last year or so, the selectors would do well to consider Rahane as a steadying force at number five. In case of a top order collapse, as has happened so often in the recent past, the Indian team will need somebody to hold the innings together. Rahane can do that to a nicety.
MS Dhoni is still India’s best wicketkeeper-batsman by a mile. His lightning reflexes, his guidance to the skipper and the young bowlers in the side, and his expertise with DRS referrals make him indispensible, at least till the end of the World Cup. What will worry the selectors, though, is his ragged batting form. Breathing down his neck is the talented, young Rishabh Pant. He has impressed with his fearless stroke play but his ‘keeping, especially in England, hasn’t been of the top order. Therefore, as Dhoni’s deputy, he shall have to await his chance.
Till a few weeks ago, the all-rounder’s spot in the team was Hardik Pandya’s for the taking. Nothing is known about how bad his lower back injury is nor has the BCCI bothered to inform the media about his rehabilitation. From personal experience, I know that lower back injuries take time to heal and can recur if not treated adequately. Therefore, my guess is that Pandya won’t be on the flight to Australia. Ravindra Jadeja, with some brilliant batting, bowling and fielding performances in the UAE, therefore seems the automatic choice for the number seven slot.
Now a look at the bowling attack. A fit Bhuvneshwar Kumar is the ideal new ball partner for Bumrah. Both of them, together, form a formidable pair in any form of cricket. Kumar is also a useful batsman at number eight. The third seamer, in English conditions, will be one from amongst Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav, Shardul Thakur and Khaleel Ahmed. I am hoping that a youngster like Shubham Mavi will be groomed during the West Indies series. Who knows, he may surprise a few with his pace and enthusiasm.
Leg spinner, Yuzvendra Chahal seems to have cemented his place in the Indian side, at least for now. Kuldeep Yadav, with his variations, may be a threat to Chahal but the latter should be India’s first choice spinner in England along with all-rounder, Jadeja.
So here’s my 16 for the ODI’s in Australia and New Zealand: 1. Virat Kohli 2. Rohit Sharma 3. Shikhar Dhawan 4. Ambati Rayudu 5. Kedar Jadhav 6. M.S. Dhoni 7. Ravindra Jadeja 8. Bhuvneshwar Kumar 9. Khaleel Ahmed 10. Yuzvendra Chahal and, 11. Jasprit Bumrah. Reserves: 1. K.L. Rahul 2. Ajinkya Rahane 3. Rishabh Pant 4. Kuldeep Yadav and, 5. Mohammad Shami/Hardik Pandya, if fit.
I won’t be surprised, though, if Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw and Shubham Mavi make the squad.
There has been a discussion of late about who should lead India’s ODI team: Kohli or Sharma? For the World Cup, I’ll stick with Kohli, for obvious reasons, despite Sharma’s good showing as skipper in the Asia Cup.
As I have stated earlier, the team that is picked for the trip to the antipodes, will be a virtual World Cup 2019 squad. Let’s wait and see.
The author is a sportswriter and caricaturist. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a mental toughness trainer.