18 — that's the number of ODIs remaining for India before the 2019 World Cup kicks off in May. Windies at home, Australia and New Zealand away, and then Australia at home again, forms the run-up to that big tournament, with a handful of T20Is thrown in for good measure.
There is still a lot to do for India — the middle-order experimentation continues and enters into its second year now; there is a need to re-evaluate bowling options, seeing how India need six bowlers at most times; and there needs to be proper second/third line of pace attack. But this is when you look from the outside.
Virat Kohli begs to differ. In his pre-series press conference on Saturday, he spoke about "finding the right balance in these remaining matches because even the batting order is now settled". Clearly, inside the dressing room, there is belief that India's World Cup squad is more or less ready. Is that really true though?
9 — count the names and that's the number you arrive at when thinking of assured spots in the Indian ODI line-up. Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, MS Dhoni, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. All of them are assured starters whenever India plays a 50-over game at full strength, and yet, there are six spots in the squad still up for grabs.
Yes, even the first-choice XI isn't properly nailed down and that is perhaps to do with how the middle order has become a game of musical chairs. As many as eight different batsmen have been tried at numbers four and five in the last 12 months, and when the music stops on Sunday, Ambati Rayudu and Rishabh Pant will be the ones in focus this time.
"With Rayudu coming in and playing well in the Asia Cup, it's about giving him enough game time till the World Cup so that the particular slot will be sorted for us. We believe he is the right person to capitalize on that spot," said Kohli ahead of the first ODI.
It is a weird conclusion to be drawn at this stage. India's search for number four isn't a new thing, just that there is more urgency to it given the World Cup. Instead, this search began in 2013 when Yuvraj Singh was dropped after the tour of South Africa. Rayudu couldn't cement his spot then, or even after the 2015 World Cup when Ajinkya Rahane was dropped. What makes the team management believe that he can do it now?
Sure, Rayudu did score 175 runs in six innings at the Asia Cup (average 43.75) but those were vastly different conditions from England. When you look at his past record, he averages 49.25 in six ODIs played in Australia and New Zealand, all of them before 2015. Is that really consistency or insufficient evidence at hand? Again, it is a weird conclusion from the captain, selectors and team management, whichever way you look at it.
The only positive that comes out is at least there is some consistency in decision-making and selection. The previous seven candidates probably failed to make a mark because of constant chopping and changing. From the Asia Cup to this bilateral contest against a weakling Windies, Rayudu gets a consistent run of matches to get ready for sterner tests in Australia and New Zealand. Only time will tell if he is the right choice for this job.
In this melee, the Indian middle-order is slated to get a power boost. As per 'the twelve' team sheet revealed on Saturday, Pant is going to make his ODI debut at Guwahati. It is a just reward after an impressive IPL season and a hard-hitting summer/autumn of Test cricket.
The youngster, who will play as a specialist batsman, has enough fire power to bolster India's middle and lower order batting, a trait that it has lacked in recent times given Dhoni's struggles. Then there is the added advantage that he will also be able to learn from the legend himself, and will be a ready-made replacement when the time comes.
Away from these two, the remainder side picks itself as aforementioned. Ravindra Jadeja will continue to fill-in for Pandya as the all-rounder, and it is a second consecutive opportunity for him to showcase his wares and get himself on that World Cup flight to England. It is the same for Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami, both of whom need to step up in white-ball cricket and show that they can bring in the required spine to the Indian pace attack should Bhuvneshwar or Bumrah not be available.
In summation, this ODI series is expected to be as one-sided as the Test series, thanks largely to the inadequacy in the Windies' squad. Owing to their continuing dispute back home, this is nowhere near the team that could play in the World Cup, and seriously mars their own preparations for that tournament.
Even so, it is none of India's concerns, who will look to warm-up for the Australian tour, fine tune for the World Cup, and plug the many visible gaps in their own squad.
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While this would be Rohit's first shot at opening in English conditions, the experience of playing Tests in 2014 will certainly help him.
Vengsarkar, a veteran of 116 Tests, said that Kohli and Rohit are in very good form, but lack of competitive time in the middle might affect their performance at least in the tour-opening WTC final.
Windies skipper Brathwaite, who was appointed in a full-time role in the five-day format earlier this year, spoke to reporters on the eve of the first Test against South Africa at St Lucia.