VEDANT SHARMA | 12 JANUARY, 2019
For the first time in recent memory it’s India’s bowling that looks sorted
The Indian team is left with 13 ODIs to play before it opens its World Cup campaign, against South Africa at the Rose Bowl, Southampton on June 5. Cricket’s most anticipated event is just five months away - and cricket fans must wonder whether the selectors have, by now, honed in on the squad they think will bring the coveted trophy back home.
If we rewind the clock back a year, it wouldn't be wrong to say that team India was close to being called ‘unassailable’ in the limited overs format. Starting the year with a comprehensive victory over the Proteas, and ending with an even better result against the Windies, the men in blue were at their supreme best.
Batsmen churning out runs and tons, and bowlers pitching the ball in the right areas for pivotal wickets, were India’s key to success last year. However, even with the team performing better collectively, were there any middle-order performances to be proud of? Ambati Rayudu's stint against the Windies was an exception.
It was seen that if India lost their top three batsmen early in the innings, they would struggled to get to a decent total 8 times out of 10. This is certainly a problem the team will look to overcome as soon as possible.
The limited overs series against Australia and New Zealand will be helpful to the Indian team in more ways than one. It will help India identify their core group and stick to it, till the World Cup at least. Especially the middle order. The conditions, pitch, pace, bounce and environmental factors will also help prepare the unit for the prestigious tournament in June.
The selectors will have a more realistic appraisal by the time India have played their last game against the Kiwis of what may be the final 15-member squad for the World Cup 2019.
But by then there will be no time left for experimentation, so it’s highly unlikely we will see any more fresh faces at this stage, unless a player or two is injured.
It’s true that in February and March India will play five ODIs against the Aussies – but at home, where conditions will be way different from those in England. So it wouldn't be wrong to say that the team playing against Australia and New Zealand Down Under will probably turn out to be the final squad.
At this stage the selectors and management will be focused more on melding together a fighting squad, as they look to give the final XI ample game time before their first encounter against the South Africans.
With that in view, eight players still seem to be fighting for their spot in the team. Interestingly, for the first time in the last 10-15 years the Indian team looks sorted in the bowling department while its batting is a worry.
Here are three questions that must be worrying the men in charge:
The Third Opener
In a tournament like the World Cup, every team looks to go with an extra opener who can be used in case of bad form or injury. For India the fight for that third spot remains wide open.
KL Rahul is currently the selectors’ first choice, but with the 26-year-old going through a rough patch it wouldn’t be a surprise if MSK Prasad and Co. put their bets on Ajinkya Rahane ahead of Rahul for the big tournament.
It will be interesting to see how Rahane plays in the domestic circuit to keep that healthy competition going.
The Middle Order Conundrum
As mentioned the middle order remains an area of concern for India - it’s the soft underbelly of the champion side. Three players are still in the race for the no.5 spot - Manish Pandey, Dinesh Karthik, and Rishabh Pant.
For the upcoming series against the Aussies, Dinesh Karthik has been chosen ahead of other two, but it looks more like a rotation of players before coming to a final conclusion.
Going into the World Cup, I believe Dinesh Karthik should be India's choice, purely because of his experience and temperament. However, the team may well go with an extra batsman and see who is better suited to English conditions.
An Extra Pacer
The Asia Cup in Dubai last year let one believe that Khaleel Ahmed would definitely feature in India’s squad as the third pacer. So, if at all India goes for an extra pacer, it will be a choice between Umesh Yadav, Mohammad Shami, Siddharth Kaul and Mohammad Siraj.
This is probably the first time the Indian team has had four extra pacers, for just one available slot. Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and Khaleel Ahmed will definitely be favourites to lead the pace attack.
The team chosen for the series in Australia and New Zealand should be the virtual World Cup squad. But let’s wait and see what happens.