An appetiser as delicious as the main course. That is how the two-match T20I series between India and Australia, beginning on Sunday, comes across as since it will be followed by five one-day internationals. These are India’s last seven engagements before it begins its quest to win the ICC Cricket World Cup later this year.
(The first T20I between India and Australia will begin at 7 PM (IST) and will be telecast on Star Sports Network).
It should not be a surprise to anyone if both teams use the T20 games in Visakhapatnam on Sunday and Hyderabad on Wednesday as shortened versions of the one-day internationals ahead to fine-tune their preparations for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 to be played in England and Wales.
It may have made sense for cricket officials of both sides to agree to play these as 50-over games. Yet, there is no point discussing what could have been. On their part, the Australian selectors decided to retain the same squad for the two T20Is and the five one-day internationals. India, on the contrary, has chosen to reward young Punjab leg-spinner Mayank Markande with a place in the T20 squad after he spun together a string of fine efforts in the past couple of months.
It will be interesting to see the home team management’s choice of leg-spinner in the two games. Would it find a berth in the XI for Mayank Markande ahead of Yuzvendra Chahal, who can do with some international game time before the World Cup? Or would it play both and challenge the Australians with eight overs of wrist spin?
The other tricky choice that Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri combine will face is having to pick either Dinesh Karthik or Rishabh Pant as a specialist batsman? With Dinesh Karthik not included in the squad for one-day series, it is likely that left-handed Rishabh Pant will continue to get a place in the XI so that his preparation for the World Cup is on track.
And, if indeed, Rishabh Pant gets the nod ahead of Dinesh Karthik, the team’s think-tank could toy with coach Ravi Shastri’s idea of getting skipper Virat Kohli to bat at No 4. In Kohli’s absence from the squad in the last few games that India played in New Zealand, the likes of Shubman Gill, Vijay Shankar and Rishabh Pant shared the responsibility of batting at one-drop.
Another aspect that will hold everyone’s attention will be MS Dhoni’s batsmanship. There is no doubt about his utility to the side but his performance with the willow will be watched with keen interest. As someone who had apparently backed off from T20Is earlier this season, these games are extra opportunity to find the touch that made him such a feared batsman.
Umesh Yadav’s return to the limited-over side raises the possibility of his nudging left-arm seamer Khaleel Ahmed in the race for the fourth fast-medium bowler’s place in the World Cup squad. He will look to forge a winning combination with Jasprit Bumrah.
Australia, a redoubtable team not too long ago but in a state of disarray now, will hope to rediscover the taste of victory in limited-overs format. It has lost nine of the last 14 games, including five of the eight Twenty20 internationals it has played this season. And the show of character that unyielding Australians usually bring to the table has been conspicuous by its absence.
There is no doubt that coach Justin Langer has a long list of boxes yet to be ticked. He has conceded that he would bundle these two T20 games as part of the World Cup preparations but even he would be unsure who would script the next miracle performance for the team. Mitchell Starc’s injury has only added to the touring side’s woes.
The visiting team will look towards captain Aaron Finch to secure a turnaround in his own form. In these 14 games, he has made a mere 152 runs, including 69 in the eight T20 internationals. If David Warner and Steve Smith were available to the Australians, Finch would have been sent to the domestic circuit, but he has the unenviable task of finding form and galvanising the team.
The inclusion of left-handed opener D’Arcy Short after his solid run in the Big Bash League indicates that the Australians are expecting him to extend that to the tour of India. He will have to cope with the slower nature of the tracks in India and the challenge of playing slower bowlers if he has to be an answer to Australia’s current problems.
It is such sub-scripts that can make for an exciting script for the two Twenty20 games. It is just as well that these will dove-tail into a more engaging one-day international series between the two sides over the next few weeks.
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Kohli has always led from the front but he knows his search for a maiden title will remain incomplete if the team doesn't perform in all departments.
Finch, Australia's white-ball captain, said his team had made progress in ODI cricket in recent years but there was still room for improvement.