On a long tour, whenever there is a change in format, new additions to the squad are flown in. There is a certain intrigue about them — when they arrive, when they get to the nets, how they uplift the team's mood coming straight from home, and most importantly, how do they fit into the playing eleven.
(The India vs New Zealand match will be played on 6 February and will start at 12.30 pm IST. The match will be broadcast on Star Sports 1 and Star Sports 1HD)
As this long Indian tour of Australia and New Zealand comes down to its last five days, that same sense of intrigue was around Basin Reserve on Tuesday. It wasn't about Siddarth Kaul, or Krunal Pandya. Most of it was centered around Rishabh Pant, as he strode into the Indian nets after arrival here on Monday afternoon.
To be frank, Pant isn't really a 'new' recruit. He was in Australia for a major part of the tour, and was then sent home for a brief 'rest' to play against England Lions. Crux of the matter was in how this Indian team management - including selectors - wanted to play things out keeping the World Cup in mind. Ample chances to everyone, and now it is Pant's turn.
India's training sessions do have a pattern about them, but mostly before Test cricket. For ODIs and T20Is, they tend to be a bit haphazard, even if revealing who gets to play and who doesn't. In that light, Tuesday's training session was a revelation — if all goes well, in Virat Kohli's absence, Pant will bat at number three in this T20I series. This should give him enough game time to audition for the World Cup, right?
After all, everything right now is about the World Cup and how different teams build up to it. In a way, this T20 series is a distraction because it brings about an unnecessary change in format. But then why would you play the IPL before a World Cup? Instead, the Indian team management will be keen to use as much limited-overs' cricket as possible to get their squad fine-tuned for that big English summer.
The main competition in this Indian line-up at present is for the middle order spots. If Pant occupies number three, then it leaves only one spot lower down for which Kedar Jadhav and Vijay Shankar will be competing. It is a bit weird, because Shankar didn't impress anyone when he last played T20 cricket for India in the tri-series in Sri Lanka a year ago. Meanwhile, Jadhav last played T20 cricket in 2017.
Clearly, both are involved to provide them more opportunities for the World Cup. It complicates things for Dinesh Karthik — getting benched for the last ODI in Wellington was a body blow, particularly how the Indian innings unfolded on Sunday as the middle order chipped in. If MS Dhoni and Hardik Pandya take two spots, India's bowling combination again will decide Karthik's fate in this series.
Shankar is a handy medium pacer, and Jadhav is an optimal part-timer. The duo allows varying bowling permutations, but the key pointer herein is that India's T20 strategy is very different. Until now, they were keen on playing five full-time bowlers and six batsmen, including Hardik Pandya. The World Cup means they will compromise with this tactic and try to give a run to their ODI combination. Two pacers, two spinners, one all-rounder and a part-timer? Or, two pacers, two spinners, and two all-rounders? It is anybody's guess, more so when you add Krunal Pandya to the spin-all-rounder mix.
In a short series, with back-to-back matches in five days, India will be keen to firm up a particular combination and persist with it. Yes, results will matter and they would want to finish this tour on an unbeaten note. But at this moment, everything pales to the World Cup in the shorter term. It is more about opportunity, experimentation and not so much about results.
Partly, it is because New Zealand flattered to deceive in the ODI series. Never mind the 4-1 scoreline, the Black Caps either couldn't play to their potential or India, being too good, exposed some basic flaws in their experimentation before the World Cup, thus sending them back to the drawing board. Either way, both camps know that the hosts are capable of much more than the performances they put forth during the past two weeks.
Additionally, in the T20 setting, gaps between sides close down. Even if the true identity of this New Zealand side hasn't been revealed, the simple fact of batting deep — as late as number ten — makes it a tricky opposition. However, the Black Caps are still not sure of what their best eleven is, for there are quite a few new names added to the list.
Scott Kuggeleijn, Daryl Mitchell and Blair Tickner will be auditioning for the World Cup. Tim Southee will too, but only because he hasn't played too much cricket recently. With as many as seven all-rounders to pick from, perhaps their greatest strength will be flexibility. While India will be rigid in terms of batting line-up, New Zealand will change the order as per the situation, and bring in the surprising element on short grounds in each of the three games.
New Zealand have hosted India for only two T20Is, back in 2009, when this shorter format was still in its nascent stage. Now in 2019, the Men in Blue return as a behemoth, like they are in other two formats as well.