It's that time of the year when anxiety and desperation creep in among the players. There are a rush and battle to book the ticket to the grandest event in world cricket. It's the time when the teams undergo fine-tuning while the permutations and combinations materialise.
For India, the final leg of preparations and matches had begun with the Australia series and will end with the Indian Premier League (IPL), and there are still few spots up for grabs to complete the jigsaw that is the World Cup squad.
The core composition of the squad is more or less firmly in place, and the Australia ODI series is crucial not just for the fringe players to stake a strong claim for World Cup selection but also for the team to analyse whatever shortcomings and deficiencies remain, as this will be the last set of international ODIs before heading into the World Cup.
This will be the final time they play as a group before the players disperse to play for their respective franchises. Of course, there will be practice matches, but the atmosphere and energy of international matches is quite different. And it didn't come as a surprise when Kohli highlighted the importance of the ODI format saying it would have been 'logical' to play few more ODIs than T20Is against Australia.
That is one of the reasons why the MSK Prasad-led selection panel decided to head into the Australia series with very similar squads for ODIs and T20Is, and even the Australians too. They want to give the players and the unit as much game time as possible. Yes, the performances in the IPL will matter but this ODI series could have a major influence on selection.
The one-day internationals will be a chance for Rishabh Pant, KL Rahul and Vijay Shankar to stake strong claims for the World Cup. Pant is battling it out with Dinesh Karthik for the second wicket-keeper's slot. The Tamil Nadu stumper has performed well in the limited chances at his doorstep. And it's time for Pant to come up with more impactful performances than Karthik. The selectors decided to drop Karthik for the ODIs and give Pant a chance, the latter having missed out on the limited-overs legs in Australia and New Zealand.
Pant had scored a century each in the England and Australia Test series' and impressed with his temperament. He scored 73 off 76 balls for India A against England Lions in the limited-overs internationals as well as an unbeaten 40 off 28 balls in the second T20I against New Zealand in Auckland. Apart from these strong performances, his left-handedness is also one of the factors that have kept in contention for the World Cup. The team management is also searching for the best possible batting slot for him.
Pant hasn't had the same impact in limited-overs internationals as in Test cricket. He averages 19.42 in T20Is and 20.50 in ODIs. However, it's also important to remember that he's played just one ODI series, against West Indies in October, last year. There are chances that he could be used as a floater in the batting order as he can provide the advantage of left-right combination. It would be interesting to see how he adapts to the position and the format. The Delhi boy could garner just four runs from the two matches and it’s high time he presses the accelerator pedal. Another area he probably needs to work on is his fielding.
The 21-year-old's match-winning knock against England Lions in the unofficial ODI in Thiruvananthapuram showed glimpses of his temperament and maturity in the 50-over format. And that’s the reason why the selectors are trying to give him a longer rope ahead.
Another player who has changed the selection dynamics is Shankar. The Tamil Nadu all-rounder displayed considerable gumption with the bat in pressure situations in New Zealand and that has kept him in hunt for the World Cup. Surprisingly, before the Australia T20I in Bengaluru, he had been given the ball for just 16 overs combined in the four ODIs he's played and wasn't brought on to bowl in any of the three T20Is against New Zealand. At the Chinnaswamy stadium, he completed his quota of four overs, picked up two wickets but went for 9.5 an over. As pointed out by statistician Mohandas Menon, Shankar has bowled just five times in 18 IPL games. So, it will be interesting to see whether the team management is looking at him as just a pure batsman or an all-rounder. Whatever the case may be, this will be a good chance for Shankar to impress yet again in absence of injured Hardik Pandya.
Good stat from @mohanstatsman. In 18 IPL games Vijay Shankar has only bowled 5 times. The maximum he has bowled is 2 overs. This is an experiment to see if he can upskill. It is a big ask.
— Harsha Bhogle (@bhogleharsha) February 27, 2019
Rahul's fortunes have swung drastically ever since the Koffee with Karan sexism episode. On the field, he had seemed all at sea mentally. Before the Visakhapatnam T20I against India, he hadn't hit a fifty in 13 innings in international cricket. But the last few days have breathed life into his career. Scores of 89 and 81 in unofficial Tests against England Lions drilled in much-needed confidence and he's carried forward that momentum into the Australia series. Shades of the old Rahul were visible in the T20Is, especially in Bengaluru.
Rahul brings in versatility and that could help his case. He can be the back-up opener or a top-order or a middle-order bat and can keep wickets as well. In the eyes of Ravi Shastri, Rahul is 'too big a talent to be wasted' and there is no doubt they still rate him highly despite his recent struggles. It's important he continues with a clear mind in the ODI series. In Visakhapatnam and Bengaluru (50, 47), he threw it away after getting himself settled, an area he needs to work on. He needs to convert starts into big scores and this is where his temperament will be closely monitored.
With the fourth pacer slot still open, Sidharth Kaul — if he gets a game — will look to bounce back after the Bengaluru T20I horror. His consistent performances in the domestic arena have kept him in the mix. For years, Umesh has delighted and frustrated in equal measure. On his day, he can a pure joy to watch, but those days have been far and few and he hasn't translated those sparks into consistency. He was dropped after the first T20I, where he went wicketless (35/0 from 4 overs), and bowled the final over in which Pat Cummins and Jhye Richardson chased down 14 to win the first ODI. He wasn't selected for the ODIs and with Khaleel too struggling with consistency, Kaul will again have a chance to make an impression, although he has just two ODIs to prove his mettle.
Kedar Jadhav, Ambati Rayudu, Mohammed Shami and Ravindra Jadeja are the four entries into the ODI squad while Umesh, Karthik, Krunal Pandya and Mayank Markande move out from the T20I squad. Bhuvneshwar Kumar will enter the ODI squad in place of Kaul for the last three fixtures.
With the squad fine tuning on, India would be looking to continue the momentum in the ODI arena. They have lost just one of their last 13 bilateral ODI series'. They have won last three series along with the Asia Cup. The only blip was the series loss against England away from home in July last year.
Unlike India, Australia have more questions than answers in their World Cup manual. They haven't won an ODI series in two years, losing all of their six series' since 30 January, 2017 which includes 20 losses from 26 matches to go with four wins and two no results. They are in a state of disarray at the moment, struggling in both the batting and bowling departments. They have had the second-worst batting average among the top 10 nations in the last one year (Since January 2018) — 27.53, Sri Lanka being the only team below them.
Just one Aussie batsman has averaged over 40 in ODIs in last one year (Since January 2018, for batsmen to have batted five innings or more) — Shaun Marsh (64). In the same period, six Indian batsmen have averaged over 40, including three over 50 and one over 100 (Kohli 100.20). In bowling, Australia have the worst average (43.23) in ODIs in last one year (Since 1 Jan 2018), third-worst economy rate (5.75) as well as the second-worst strike rate (45.0). Only two bowlers have averaged below 30 (players to have played five matches or more) — Jhye Richardson (29.46) and Mitchell Marsh (27) whereas, India have had the best average and strike rate among the top 10 nations — 28.26 and 33.5. Four Indian bowlers average below 30 and two of them below 20.
The Aussie selection arena for the World Cup is wide open. And this series presents a chance to the likes of Alex Carey, Peter Handscomb, D'Arcy Short and Usman Khawaja to make strong statements. It might boil down to how they handle the Indian wrist spinners. Aaron Finch too would be desperately looking to get back to form he managed just one fifty score in his last 26 international innings, with his footwork as well as the pattern in his mode of dismissals coming under the scanner. Marsh, their most consistent batsman while Maxwell, who hit the whirlwind century in Bengaluru, along with Marcus Stoinis will be the key men for the visitors.
A lot will also depend on how their own spinners perform. The last time Australia visited India for an ODI series, in 2017, the spinners averaged 70 with an economy rate of 6.54 and strike rate of 64.1 compared to India's 31.77, giving away runs at 5.50 with a strike rate of 34.6. And it wasn't a surprise that they were hammered 4-1 in the ODI series.
India had a near perfect series against New Zealand apart from the blip in Hamilton, where they were bowled out for 92. There are still slight concerns in the batting when it comes to swinging conditions but they would hardly encounter those conditions in this series.
The numbers show the wide gulf between the two sides in the ODI arena. Add to that the fact that Australia haven't won a bilateral ODI series against India in the latter's backyard in nine years now. The last time they won was back in 2009 when they beat India 3-2 and since then, they have lost three series'. Unsurprisingly, India start off as favourites. However, Australia have the momentum in their stride after beating India for the first time in an away T20I series. They have sounded off a warning and if they do manage to pull off an upset, it would be a massive confidence booster for the battered side in the build-up to the World Cup.
With stat inputs from Umang Pabari