With a little less than six months left for the ICC World Cup, the Indian team will commence its final preparations for that apex event of the cricket world, starting from the three-match ODI series in Australia in January 2019. Interestingly, following their ongoing red-ball assignment in Down Under, Virat Kohli's team are getting only 18 international fixtures (13 ODIs and five T20Is) before their first Word Cup game against South Africa in Southampton on 5 June. And in order to identify its best possible combination for the tournament, the think-tank will use these limited-overs fixtures as a platform of providing maximum possible exposure to its probable England-bound players.
The strategy deployed is clearly evident from the 16-member limited-overs squads that the MSK Prasad-led selection committee has picked on Monday for the upcoming ODI and T20I tours to Australia and New Zealand. By calling the likes of MS Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav back in the T20I set-up, the team management wants them to play as many international matches as possible prior to the World Cup, irrespective of the format. Whereas, the exclusion of Rishabh Pant and Manish Pandey gives an impression that perhaps the management doesn't consider them a finished product yet.
Nevertheless, let's go through both the squads separately and have in-depth analysis.
In ODIs, the core group has been identified
Squad: Virat Kohli(C), Rohit Sharma (VC), KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Ambati Rayudu, Dinesh Karthik, Kedar Jadhav, MS Dhoni (WK), Hardik Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Khaleel Ahmed, Mohammed Shami.
This 16-member squad, which will be playing eight ODIs across Australia and New Zealand during this tour, is India's core group for the World Cup. From top quality batting and bowling options, to versatile all-rounders – this team seems to have every based covered. And most importantly, for each spot in the playing XI, the captain has options to choose from.
With Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli batting right up the line-up, often India's limited-overs' sides are criticised for being top-heavy. In recent times, a vulnerable middle-order has the baffled the team on numerous occasions. So, in order to address this conundrum, the selectors have trusted on the experience of Ambati Rayudu, Dinesh Karthik and Kedar Jadhav. Two among these three are expected to make it to the playing XI. KL Rahul can be another option as well but he seems more suited as a back-up opener than a middle-order batter.
Interestingly, Jadhav has been recalled in the side after not featuring in the first three ODIs against Windies due to fitness issues. Whereas a fit-again Hardik Pandya is making a comeback in white-ball cricket following a back injury, which he sustained during the Asia Cup. His inclusion will add a much required balance to this team, especially on Australian and New Zealand conditions. Ravindra Jadeja, the other all-rounder, doesn't seem like a certainty in the XI on this tour but the southpaw is capable enough of performing more than a decent job, if required.
With Dhoni there in the line-up, Karthik will be India's back-up keeper. And if needed, the Chennai boy can chip in as a specialist batsman as well. He was a part of India's victorious Asia Cup squad in September but missed out on selection during the ODIs against the boys from the Caribbean.
However, Pant's World Cup hopes are yet not over. Following the Test series in Australia, the selectors have asked him play the 50-overs 'A' series against England at home. He is part of the T20I squad in New Zealand as well. So, the youngster has certainly been kept in the loop. As a first-choice keeper-batsman, Dhoni's place is almost certain for the World Cup and alongside him one of Pant or Karthik will be picked as back-up.
The bowling attack has every sort of variety. The selectors have preferred Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Khaleel Ahmed and Mohammed Shami as the four frontline pacers and three of them should make it to the XI. Whereas in the spin department, the performance of two wrist-spinners – Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal – will be followed with a keen interest.
The only debatable inclusion in this line-up is, Shami, who is not a regular feature in limited-over's cricket. Early in October, after a gap of nearly a year, the pacer made a comeback in white-ball cricket against the Windies. But Shami looked completely out of sorts in the two games he played and was subsequently left out of the squad in the last three matches. Now he gets one more opportunity to sort out his limited-overs career. And if Shami doesn't grab this chance, selectors should try out Umesh Yadav in the next series.
Almost identical T20I squad
Squad: Virat Kohli (C), Rohit Sharma (VC), KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Rishabh Pant, Dinesh Karthik, Kedar Jadhav, MS Dhoni (WK), Hardik Pandya, Krunal Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Khaleel Ahmed.
Barring Krunal Pandya, all the other 15 members in this squad are World Cup probables and they will treat this three-match T20I series accordingly. It is expected that think-tank might field the ODI XI in the T20Is in order to give the boys enough time in the middle. In that case, Krunal might have to sit out on a few occasions.
Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how the Indian wrist-spinners perform on small New Zealand grounds. In England earlier this year, after their mystery was decoded, the opponent batsmen took them apart. And the smaller dimension of boundary on certain grounds did not help their cause either. Both Kuldeep and Chahal can try and rectify their mistakes here.
The tour will be an ideal World Cup audition for 21-year old left-arm seamer Khaleel Ahmed, who has taken giant strides (11 wickets in six matches with an economy rate of 5.07 since making his debut in Asia Cup) at the international level since making his debut in the Asia Cup.
Overall, since this Trans-Tasman tour will be dress-rehearsal for next year's mega event, India should look to build a momentum for themselves in these matches in order to get into the grooves before heading towards England.