Ambati Rayudu and fast bowler Mohammed Shami were not part of the Indian squad which played the Twenty20 Internationals in New Zealand, but they were the ones who would have warmed the cockles of the selectors’ hearts with their performances in the five-match One-Day International series that preceded it.
India would have happy memories and positive gains from the eight-match New Zealand tour, in which it won the ODI series 4-1 and lost the T20I series 1-2. Besides Rayudu’s success at No 4 and Shami’s re-emergence as a spearhead, India spent time on the tour with a specific gameplan and executed it pretty well.
To be sure, since the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 is drawing closer, both teams utilised the T20Is as an extension of the ODI series. Their selections for each game were an indication of how they wanted to use the chance to fine-tune their preparations, trying out some on the edge of being picked for the trip to England this summer.
It meant that former captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni would renew his association with T20Is after opting out during the home series against the West Indies. It gave him more game time. The two ODI matches that he sat out with an injury meant that the Twenty20 games assumed great importance in helping him find some kind of touch.
There were two substantial batting failures that would ring alarm bells in the Indian camp, considering that in both cases the white cricket ball did a bit in the air than in the other games. With Kohli resting, India were hustled out for 92 in the fourth ODI in Hamilton and collapsed to 139 when chasing 220 for victory in the first Twenty20 game in Wellington.
For all that, there were signs that the batsmen have been made aware of the roles that they would play in a few weeks’ time in the World Cup. Rayudu top-scored in the ODI series to give the selectors and team management reason for cheer. Dhoni played a good knock in the second ODI in Mount Maunganui while Kedar Jadhav did enough to stay in the reckoning.
It were the middle-order batsmen’s performances in the eight games in New Zealand that the selectors would have watched with greater keenness than anything else. There is no doubt that they would have been satisfied with their choices, especially after it seemed that they had left themselves with few options by ignoring Manish Pandey and falling back on a number of elder batsmen.
There was also reconfirmation that left-handed Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma would always need to ensure good starts since their early separation brings the rest of the batting under immense pressure. Each time their partnership was broken quickly by the New Zealand bowler, the challenges grew for the others.
Though he missed out on the eight ODI games after the Test series as part of his workload management, Rishabh Pant returned to the Twenty20 games and showed that he would be an asset to the Indian side at the No 3 slot. That move will allow Kohli to bat at No 4 and ensure that the wealth of experience available is spread more evenly than just at the top.
Vijay Shankar batted soundly, but not long enough to further his case to be included in India’s long-term plans. That he was given 10 overs in three ODIs and not bowled at all in the three T20 matches is an indication of the team leadership’s thinking that he is perhaps some way short of being seen as an all-rounder.
Shubman Gill was given the chance to push KL Rahul for a place in the World Cup squad as reserve opener. However, his two knocks in the ODIs after Kohli left the team’s reins in the hands of Rohit only served to show glimpses of his immense potential, and may have imposed a wait on the teenager. It was a trial by fire for him on debut in Hamilton.
On the bowling front, despite Jasprit Bumrah’s absence, India acquitted itself well with Shami enjoying his return to the ODI squad by delivering quality performances. He was India’s leading wicket-taker and immediately raised visions of teaming up with Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar as the team’s frontline fast-medium attack in England.
The two wrist spinners, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, consolidated their position as the premier slow bowlers in the limited-over formats with displays that fetched them a total of 17 wickets in the ODIs. With Hardik Pandya enjoying the opportunity of playing for India after a confusing spell on trans-continental flights and at home, India’s attack wore a well-settled look.
And what’s more, when he was pressed into service, left-arm spinner Krunal Pandya showed that he could be a quite useful option available to the selectors. His stroke-play could come in handy for the side lower down the order, even if he has not really been tested in the ODI format at all. The bowlers did tick all the boxes, though they appeared a bit lost in the first Twenty20 game.
Overall, India found more reasons to be pleased with how its World Cup squad is picking itself and shaping up. It would leave the team to make the one-odd big decision — crucial, to say the least — about where Kohli would prefer to bat in the World Cup. For a long time, he has been walking in at the fall of the first wicket, but Pant could be the option that India needs to consider seriously.