Ravi Shastri, Team India’s head coach, doesn’t like to be questioned. He never did. He likes to pose the questions and answer them too. Come June-July, however, if the Indian team doesn’t perform to expectations – God forbid – in the World Cup of 2019, then he will surely have a lot to answer for. Shastri knows better than most that in sport, as in life, you are only as good as your last ‘screw-up’.
The Indian team plays ten more one-day internationals (ODIs) before it heads into its opening World Cup match against South Africa, at the Ageas Bowl, Southampton on 5 June. Perched in second position in the ICC’s ODI rankings right now, are Virat Kohli’s Indians ready to wrest back the all-important trophy they had last won in 2011?
ICC rankings, in fact, count for naught when it comes to performing in high-pressure tournaments. Have we forgotten how underdogs Pakistan trounced the fancied Indians in the final of the Champions Trophy of 2017?
The historic recent series win in Australia will surely be a confidence booster for the Indian team. However, we will really know how good the team is when the ODI series in New Zealand gets underway in a few days’ time. The Kiwis have a strong batting lineup backed by excellent limited overs bowlers. Ross Taylor and Martin Guptill have struck form at the right time, and bowlers like Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Lockie Ferguson etc have their tails up after some good recent performances. India’s mettle will therefore have been tested by the time the five-match series ends on 3 February.
I had stated in my column, more than six months ago, that the Indian team will have very little scope for experimentation by the time the series in the antipodes got over. The Australian half of the tour is done and dusted, but a few questions still remain to be answered by Shastri, skipper Kohli and the selectors:
Who is India’s reserve opener?
It is almost certain now that Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma will open for India in the World Cup. Who will back them in case of an injury, illness or a sudden loss of form during the tournament that will be played between 30 May and 15 July?
KL Rahul has been awfully off form – mentally and technically - and what’s more, he is facing disciplinary action for appearing on Karan Johar’s show, that saw Hardik Pandya allegedly making misogynistic statements. The Indians have therefore wasted the opportunity to try out Mayank Agarwal in the recently concluded series. He batted fluently in the Tests against Australia and deserved to be given an opportunity in the ODIs. What did the Indian selectors do? They decided to send Shubman Gill to warm the benches Down Under in place of Rahul.
Should Kohli bat at Number 3 or Number 4?
The Indian batting order is top-heavy. If the team has to put up a sizeable total – 350 plus – then either Rohit Sharma or Kohli, coming in one drop, has to fire. Imagine the scenario where both of them are back in the hut in the first six overs, as happened in the India-Australia ODI series. Who is then capable of consolidating as well as scoring that big hundred to help India to a huge total? The Indian skipper, therefore, would be better off batting at Number 4 but ready to bat at Number 3, if there is a big opening partnership.
Should MS Dhoni be prepared for the Number 3, 4 and 5 positions?
Despite his legion of baiters, Dhoni has booked his place in the first eleven, for the World Cup, through his batting and keeping performances Down Under. He was even declared ‘Man of the Series’. Would it therefore make sense for him to bat at Number 3 if Dhawan gets out early, so that he can hold one end up while Rohit Sharma plays his shots? With Ambati Rayudu probably out of the reckoning for that slot, it would perhaps be prudent for Dhoni to play at one drop, thus protecting Kohli from early pressure. A point to ponder for Team India!
With Dhoni and Dinesh Karthik in the squad, is Rishabh Pant being wasted?
Pant has a long career ahead of him. Despite his batting prowess and his ability to play big shots, India can’t depend on him to play long, match-winning knocks under pressure in World Cup 2019. Moreover, in England, he has been a bit shoddy behind the stumps when the ball starts moving late in the air. Both Dhoni and Karthik, on the other hand, have proved their utility in the ODI squad and therefore seem to be indispensible at the moment.
English conditions demand at least one bits-and-pieces player in the first eleven. Who is it going to be for India?
Pandya should have been the first choice for this position, probably at Number 6. If he isn’t available for any reason, will that slot be taken by Vijay Shankar or Kedar Jadhav? With Pandya in the squad, India can afford to play an additional spinner – probably Jadeja and add depth to its batting too. The million dollar question then is – will the Board of Control for Cricket in India or the CoA let Pandya play?
Is India banking too much on Jasprit Bumrah to win them matches in the World Cup?
The Indian pace attack in Australia, in the ODIs, consisted of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Khaleel Ahmed/Mohammed Siraj and Vijay Shankar, with Bumrah being wisely rested. But while Kumar and Shami justified the faith reposed in them, Khaleel, Siraj and to an extent, Shankar, were found wanting. Who, then, will replace Bumrah in case of an injury - Ishant Sharma or Umesh Yadav?
Who will India’s lead spinner be in the World Cup – Kuldeep Yadav or Yuzvendra Chahal?
Both Yadav and Chahal have been outstanding at times and have also been collared every now and then. The latter seems to be more reliable, though, and deserves to be the lead spinner in the side. In the end, it will depend on the skipper’s faith in either of them. On a seaming track, Kohli could even opt for Jadeja as the lone spinner in the side with Kedar Jadhav to help out with a few overs.
In my opinion, with the World Cup drawing near, the Indian squad should look something like this: Virat Kohli (Captain), Rohit Sharma (Vice Captain), Shikhar Dhawan, MS Dhoni (Wicketkeeper), Dinesh Karthik, Hardik Pandya or Vijay Shankar, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, KL Rahul or Mayank Agarwal, Kedar Jadhav, Kuldeep Yadav and Ishant Sharma.
“When you stop listening, stop learning, stop looking and asking questions,” says author, Lillian Smith, “then it’s time to die.” It’s our prerogative, as stakeholders in Indian cricket, to ask questions; it’s for Shastri to answer them – now or after the World Cup of 2019. It’s his choice.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now the sports director of a reputed group of institutions in Mumbai.