There is still some time to go – and the IPL to be played – before India embarks for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 in England and Wales but it has worn a well-settled look for some time. It used the last couple of one-day international series in Australia and New Zealand to resolve its middle-order and you can expect that process to continue in the five-match home series against Australia.
The full-strength squad that the selectors announced for the coming series mirrors the intense desire to make the most of the game time together before the players head in different directions for the franchise-based season. Also, it shows that the selectors are still unsure about a couple of places in the World Cup squad – a reserve fast-medium bowler and a reserve batsman.
Of course, India will need a back-up for the first-choice trio of seam and swing bowlers comprising Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami. It has tried a few hands in the recent past and it appears that the final choice is yet to be made. Left-arm pacer Khaleel Ahmed may have got his nose ahead on the tour of Australia and New Zealand but has not quite secured his berth.
Some have interpreted the decision to exclude Khaleel Ahmed from the squad for the five ODIs as an indication that the team would leave for England without a fourth specialist fast-medium bowler. It makes no sense to pack a squad for a home series with many seam bowling options. Besides, Siddarth Kaul will have to be given the chances to showcase his value.
The selectors’ faith in Vijay Shankar’s all-round skills contrasts with the team leadership’s apparent lack of faith in his ability to deliver 10 overs in an ODI. In the four games that he played in Australia and New Zealand, he delivered 16 overs – less than half of the 40 that he could have bowled. The selectors have presented the think-tank another chance to exploit his utility.
By leaving spin-bowling all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja out of the squad for the current series, the selectors appear to have voted for the likes of Kedar Jadhav and Vijay Shankar as the back-up all-rounder for Hardik Pandya. At the same time, it is abundantly clear that the first-choice spinners will be the wrist artists, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.
It is, of course, possible that the selectors believe Vijay Shankar could seal a place in the squad on the strength of his batting alone and that the few overs he sends down will be a bonus for the side should he find a place in the XI. Then again, the selectors may have wanted to give him an extended run in the squad to make a stronger impression on everyone concerned.
That brings us to Dinesh Karthik. Hard as he has tried to extend his finishing skills from the domestic circuit to the national team in limited-overs cricket, he may not have done enough to seal his place as a specialist batsman. The left-handed Rishabh Pant may find favour ahead of Dinesh Karthik while Ambati Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav present themselves as middle-order options.
The debate on the choice of extra batsmen to take to England can be resolved only if the likes of Vijay Shankar and KL Rahul get the opportunity to play the ODIs against Australia. Not much will be served if they are only warming the bench in the series. But with India eager to extend its dominance over Australia, will that happen?
Indeed, more than final round of musical chairs for the last two slots in the Indian team for the World Cup, it will be interesting to see if the idea that Virat Kohli should bat at No 4 rather than his usual No 3 slot resonates with him. That will allow Rishabh Pant the freedom to express himself at one-drop and the middle-order can benefit from the skipper’s vast experience.
Even if it were only in the Twenty20 games in New Zealand, we saw Vijay Shankar and Rishabh Pant be given the responsibility of batting at No 3 in Kohli’s absence. However, with the skipper having established his hold over that place in the batting order for a number of years now, it may be tough for him to revert to the middle-order.
If we see Rishabh Pant at No 3 at any time in the coming series, it could mean that the team will have to make just one choice in the batting order. Ambati Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav will be the ones left vying for that. And in case Kohli decides that he will stick to the top-order slot of his and have Rayudu walk in at No 4, Rishabh Pant will be left to vie with Kedar Jadhav as the finisher.
There is a growing belief that the free-striking left-hander Rishabh Pant will be of greater value at the top of the order rather than in the middle-order but with Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan firmly entrenched, he will have to step up as opener only if either of them is unfit or is woefully out of touch. Against the backdrop, he would be best suited to bat at No 3.
Australia, a redoubtable side till not too long ago but left to pick the pieces up and resume its rebuilding journey, may not like it much if India is seen as using the series to fine tune its World Cup squad and preparation. That should not matter to Kohli and his team. They must go ahead and do what is in the squad’s best interests.