The big question for Virat Kohli and his men after the series of white-ball matches in India, Australia, New Zealand and at home again is: Did India succeed in plugging all the gaps in the run-up to the 2019 World Cup?
India’s quest started last October against West Indies at home and was a work in progress even at the recently concluded series against Australia. Many T20Is and ODIs in three different countries, in varying conditions and against diverse opponents later, skipper Virat Kohli admitted that there was “probably one spot in the team that we have to discuss. The rest of the team is pretty much sorted.”
Safe to say that one spot is the number four batsman. The ideal number four batsman would be the crucial link running through the high-performing top order trio of Rohit Sharma, Sikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli and the finishers Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Hardik Pandya, et al. But in the process of searching for that ideal player, India found resounding success in another key slot.
The team think-tank and selectors had cast the net far and wide to assemble a decent pool of fast bowlers to champion the campaign. They were sure that Jasprit Bumrah would be the spearhead. But they were unsure of the others, particularly after Bhuvaneshwar Kumar was not the force he was post last season’s IPL injury.
They tried bowlers of various hues; Mohammed Siraj, Sharadul Thakur, Umesh Yadav, Hardik Pandya, Siddharth Kaul, Khaleel Ahmed, besides a whole lot of other potential speedsters in the India and India ‘A’ teams. They even recalled Jaydev Unadkat for few T20I games last year.
However they hit the jackpot with an old hand –Mohammed Shami, who was sidelined with injuries and other personal issues, came back a rejuvenated pace bowler and to the utter glee of the team management, looked sharp, incisive and effective with the white ball. In no time he was counted as the next best option after Bumrah.
Actually Shami’s ODI career is an interesting one. He reached the milestone of 100 ODI wickets faster than any other Indian bowler. He needed just 56 matches to get there. To put this in perspective, Irfan Pathan reached the mark in 59 games, Zaheer Khan in 65, Javagal Srinath in 68, Anil Kumble in 78.
Yet Shami has played far too few ODIs in his six-year career. He has featured in just 63 games. In comparison, Bhuvi who made his debut a few days before Shami has turned out in 105 matches. Bumrah who came into the Indian team a good three years later, has already played 49 matches.
While the paceman is making up for lost time, Kohli would be absolutely delighted with the way he has made his presence felt. The skipper now has the luxury of three excellent options at the World Cup: Bumrah, Shami and Bhuvi. This allows him sufficient head room to opt for one or two spinners or even fourth pacer as per the situation demands. The three fast bowlers at their prime and peaking at the right time must be viewed as the biggest gain of the past few months. Hopefully the demands of IPL won’t sap their energies, but instead help them get to England with renewed confidence!
Another player to grab opportunities that came his way was Vijay Shankar. The all rounder impressed with the bat through a string of good scores in T20Is and ODIs. He also showed excellent temperament while bowling the tense last over in the Nagpur ODI win over the Aussies. His two wickets with well-fired straight deliveries amidst all the pressure would have done his chances of a berth in the World Cup squad a world of good.
The spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal did not perform as well as expected in the home series against Australia. But they have been so impressive over the past couple of years that they could be pardoned their odd poor showing. The Aussies seemed to have studied them threadbare and had a strategy against them. But that cannot take away the fact that the spinners still picked wickets and thereby slowed them down.
The big doubt still hovers over the number four batsman. Frankly the team is nowhere near finding the ideal man for the spot. Kohli, who likes to run hard at the start of his innings, would not like to be saddled with a ponderous mover at the other end. Thus whoever takes that spot has to be able to rotate strike and run like the hare.
Ambati Rayudu was the front runner. He made an excellent 90 against New Zealand in Wellington. But consistency was not his forte. After three failures against the Aussies he was unceremoniously dropped. Additionally he does not bring a secondary skill to the table, unlike, say Kedar Jadav who could be expected to send down a few overs.
There is talk of bringing in KL Rahul at number three and Kohli himself dropping down the order. But this sort of tinkering would be akin to making the best of a bad situation.
The situation though is ripe for the likes of Shreyas Iyer and Manish Pandey to take the IPL by storm and convince the selectors that they could be the missing link. But that’s another story. For now let’s toast Shami and Vijay Shankar. May their tribe grow!