'Change' has been the theme of Indian cricket for the last few months. It started off with the change in captaincy in white-ball cricket as Virat Kohli stepped down from T20 captaincy and was then removed as ODI captain. Rohit Sharma was handed over the reins of the limited-overs team. The support staff changed as head coach Ravi Shastri, bowling Bharat Arun and fielding coach R Sridhar's terms came to an end. In came the much popular Rahul Dravid along with Paras Mhambrey and T Dilip. The only constant was Vikram Rathour who was re-elected as batting coach after a decent stint with the earlier backroom staff.
Then Virat Kohli stepped down from the Test captaincy after the South Africa Test series in the backdrop of strained relations with the BCCI. So, India will now have a new captain in red-ball cricket as well.
Indian cricket is in a transition phase. India's transition in white-ball cricket will start off with the ODI series. Yes, Dravid had already been in charge of white-ball series' to start off his stint in Sri Lanka but that was with a second-string side led by stand-in captain Shikhar Dhawan while the first-team players were away on England tour. So, this will be his first assignment with a full-strength team. This would have been Rohit Sharma's first series as full-time captain but he misses out due to a hamstring injury. In his place vice-captain KL Rahul will lead the side. And he is one of the candidates touted to replace Kohli as the Test captain.
All-rounder Hardik Pandya who used to be a vital cog in India's line-up has been left out. In comes Venkatesh Iyer, whose emergence has been a big positive for India and he's been looked at as a potential successor of Pandya. Young Ruturaj Gaikwad has broken the selection door open with consistent performances in the IPL and domestic One-day cricket and competing for that opening slot.
In a year of T20 World Cup, ODIs have little relevance especially with India having directly qualified for the 2023 World Cup by the virtue of being the hosts. But anyways this series doesn't form a part of the World Cup Super League. India will take the first step towards building for the 2023 World Cup. The same goes for South Africa as well. There will be new ideas, a fresh approach and as Rahul said, India won't be "scared" of trying out things in this series as they look to find the right personnel and combination for the mega event.
The first assignment presents a plethora of challenges for team management. They will at first need to hit the reset button after the Test series loss and start afresh. Then there is the selection headache, albeit a good one. The best thing about this transition is that there is no shortage of talent in the Indian setup.
There is immense competition in the batting department with the likes of Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan, Venkatesh Iyer, Shikhar Dhawan in the squad along with the mainstays in Kohli, Rahul and Rishabh Pant. This also brings the batting position dilemma along with it. There are team battles as well as personal battles.
Kohli has been at the center of things on and off the field. He's ridden a bumpy ride in the last couple of years. Though his white-ball form hasn't been a problem. He's averaged at 46.66 in ODIs and 49.50 in T20Is. The expectations are high though with the standards and benchmarks he's set over the years. And he hasn't looked that authoritative Kohli who belted centuries after centuries. That three-figure score has eluded him in international cricket. He will be playing his first match as non-captain in more than five years in this series. The new role might help him get back to his best and end the century drought which has lasted 62 innings now.
Shikhar Dhawan has been constantly competing for the opening slot. He's gone out of favour in Tests and seemingly in T20Is as well. Dhawan didn't have the best of times in the 2021 Vijay Hazare trophy where he could manage just 56 runs from five innings at 11.20 and would be looking to make a statement in South Africa to stake a claim alongside Rohit Sharma for ODIs. Gaikwad is in line too, having plundered runs in the IPL and more recently in the 2021 Vijay Hazare Trophy where he scored 603 runs, including four centuries from five matches to end up as top run-getter. He averages 54.73 in List A cricket.
In KL Rahul, India had found a stable No 5 they had been searching for a long time. He had the ability to stabilise and accelerate when required. But with Rohit absent, Rahul confirmed he will open the batting. This means Ruturaj and Dhawan will compete for the other opening slot.
Venkatesh Iyer is looking to audition for the seam bowling all-rounder's role in absence of Pandya. He burst onto the scene in style, opening the batting for KKR in the IPL. But he might not be looked at for the opening role. His role though will be crucial in the scheme of things with regards to both his batting and bowling. Captain Rahul is "excited" at the prospect of having Iyer in the side.
The starting eleven will depend on what combination India go with. Are they looking for five batsmen, one wicket-keeper and five bowlers or five batsmen, an all-rounder and four bowlers?
The second option would mean Venkatesh will be the fifth bowler and bowl the full quota of overs. It will mean he will take Jadeja's spot at No 7. It allows India to have a strong middle order with Shreyas, Suryakumar, Pant and Venkatesh lined up. Venkatesh shuffled between 4,5 and 6 for Madhya Pradesh in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and scored 379 runs at 63.16. If they look at him as the sixth bowling option then the batting might become a bit weak as Shreyas or Suryakumar will have to sit out and Shardul Thakur will take up the No 7 role along with Deepak Chahar at 8. Both of whom can contribute vital runs down the order.
Rahul asserted the importance of a sixth bowling option in ODIs which hinted towards using Venkatesh in that role. Venkatesh was the joint-highest wicket-taker for MP in the Vijay Hazare Trophy with nine wickets from five innings at 30.66 and an economy rate of 5.75.
"Sixth bowling option nowadays in white-ball cricket is extremely important," Rahul said ahead of the ODI series. "We've known that for a long time. As best possible we are trying to develop that sixth bowling option. Venkatesh has come into the team so we will give him the chance. He's done decently well for us in the 2-3 games he played against NZ and he's done well in the IPL as well, so he gives us the option as the sixth bowler."
The bowling department will be spearheaded by stand-in vice captain Jasprit Bumrah but with three matches in space of five days, he might not play all the games keeping to balance his workload. It will be interesting to see if they go in with three spinners and one pacer in the four-man bowling attack of two pacers and two spinners. Shardul will most probably take the second pacer's slot. Siraj, Bhuvneshwar, Chahar and Prasidh Krishna will battle for the third pacer's slot if India play three pacers and one spinner along with an all-rounder in Venkatesh.
R Ashwin and Yuzvendra Chahal will then battle for the sole spinners' slot. A resurgent Ashwin in white-ball cricket will return to the ODI setup after five years and he will be eager to make a mark in the 50-over format as well amid intense competition after impressing in the T20 World Cup. Chahal has endured a bumpy ride in the last few years and would be looking to get back his place in the white-ball side.
But if Venkatesh is used as a sixth bowler, they might go with the three pacers-two-spinner strategy with Venkatesh being the fourth pacer in the line-up.
The first two ODIs are at Boland Park in Paarl before they move to the final ODI in Newlands, Cape Town. And Rahul said that the Boland Park pitch does look like it will offer a little bit of spin and that the spinners - Ashwin and Chahal become "really important for us."
It hints towards a two-spinner strategy. The last time India visited South Africa for a bilateral ODI series, the KulCha (Kuldeep Yadav and Chahal) pair gave them a real tough time, picking 33 wickets between them from six ODIs as India thumped the Proteas 5-1.
While they would look to build on the aggressive batting approach, they would aim at bowling improvement as well. Since the 2019 World Cup, the Indian bowlers have had the third-worst average in ODIs - 37.25 after Zimbabwe (40.96) and Afghanistan (38.37). They have the worst economy rate at 5.97. It starts with the powerplay. In the last two years (Since 1 Jan 2020), India have had the worst average - 113.8, economy rate - 6.1 and Strike rate - 112.5 in the first 10 overs of the ODIs.
South Africa, on the other hand, would look to look to carry forward the momentum from the Test series win. Temba Bavuma is back to lead the ODI side after he missed three ODIs due to thumb injury he suffered on the Sri Lanka tour. The white ball side showed grit, fight and determination in the T20 World Cup even though they missed out on qualification for the knockouts narrowly. The Proteas would like to build on that character and performance and take another step towards building for the World Cup.
The Proteas batting will be their strength. In the last couple of years, they have had the third-best average behind New Zealand and South Africa in ODIs - 41.70. Opener Janneman Malan has burst onto the international scene in some style averaging 82.62 in the 11 ODIs he's played so far. Quinton de Kock will be back in the squad after surprise Test retirement mid-way through the Test series. He would be looking to regain old form after a difficult outing in the T20 World Cup, averaging just 17.25. And so will Aiden Markram who endured a tough time in the Test series and overall in the last two years has averaged 28.57 in ODIs in the last 12 months. De Kock will open the batting with Malan with Bavuma coming in at No 3.
One of the finds of the Test series - a young Marco Jansen, who has received his maiden ODI call-up, might be in line to make his ODI debut in absence of Kagiso Rabada who was released from the squad to manage his workload. The pace depart will in all probability led by Lungi Ngidi. Tabraiz Shamsi, who's been South Africa's highest wicket-taker in the last two years will spearhead the spin department. The all-round department consists of Andile Phehlukwayo, George Linde and Dwaine Pretorius. The Proteas too might look to go in with two spinners which will mean Keshav Maharaj and Linde will compete for the second spot. They have good variety and balance in the squad. Team combination wise, the main conundrum would be to go with an extra batter at No 6 or an all-rounder.
It will be a challenging task for India. Historically, they have struggled in ODIs against South Africa in South Africa. Prior to their last series in 2018, they had won just five of the 28 matches they played in the Rainbow Nation. It was three years ago that they doubled that tally in a single series beating the Proteas 5-1 in the six-match ODI series. It was a series where Kohli went on a rampage hitting 558 runs from six innings including three tons and a fifty at an average of 186. And the KulCha pair wreaked havoc with 33 wickets between them. That was the first time they won an ODI series in South Africa.
As they try to pick themselves up from the Test series loss, they would look to seek inspiration from that 2018 ODI series.
With the confident Proteas looking to carry forward the momentum and India aiming to bounce back from the Test series loss, the cricketing fraternity might be treated to yet another gripping series in the Rainbow Nation.
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