The frenetic pace of the international cricket calendar allows no time to rest on laurels.
Monday, 7 January, marked a red-letter day in Indian cricket – after more than 71 years of pursuit, India won a Test series on Australian soil.
On Saturday, 12 January, the momentous triumph will be consigned to the annals of history, and the whites consigned to the cupboard, for some time, as India begin a three-match ODI series to conclude their two-month long tour of Australia.
It begins a crucial period for both sides, with the countdown to the World Cup entering its final stretches.
With less than five months left to the quadrennial showpiece event, all 10 participating nations are hitting the final gear as far as preparations are concerned.
Five questions Team India will hope to find answers to in their three-match ODI series in Australia:
1. Is Rayudu Set at Number 4?
India’s last ODI assignment, a five-match series at home against West Indies, may have answered a question which had remained unanswered since the end of the previous World Cup (or even before that).
Ambati Rayudu became the 11th different batsman tried out at the number four slot since April 2015, but it was clear ahead of the Windies contest that the team management wanted to persist with him.
“It's about giving him (Rayudu) enough game time till the World Cup so that the particular slot will be sorted for us,” captain Virat Kohli said before the series.
Rayudu responded with scores of 22*, 73, 100 and 22 the four times he got a chance to bat in India’s 3-1 win.
Also Read: Why Ambati Rayudu Is Here to Stay
Kohli indicated even clearer faith in his new-found number four at the end of the series.
"“Rayudu has taken his chance with both hands. We need to back him till the 2019 World Cup. He reads the game well, so we are happy that someone intelligent is batting at number four.”" - Virat Kohli, after India’s 3-1 series win vs West Indies
Even with a second-choice bowling lineup confronting him, the three ODIs in Australia will provide a stern examination of Rayudu’s credentials, as will the five-match rubber in New Zealand that follows.
If the 33-year-old can keep his own, India will be closer to having nailed down a long-plaguing ailment in their ODI setup.
2. Will Dhoni Remain the First Choice?
Despite the formats being different, this question appears to have been answered – for once and for all – by the decision to reinstate the former India captain to the T20I lineup for the upcoming series in New Zealand.
The idea is clear: Give MS Dhoni as much game time as possible. The need for the same arises due to the year Dhoni had in the 50-over game last year.
Dhoni averaged 25 in 13 ODI innings in 2018, his worst-ever year as a batsman (discounting 2004, where he only played three matches). The strike rate of 71.42 too, was the worst Dhoni has had in any calendar year.
Also Read: Why MS Dhoni Remains Integral to Team India
The arguments in favour of ‘Captain Cool’, however, aren’t restricted by his shortage of runs. Dhoni remains a vital voice in Kohli’s ear (and India’s best user of DRS by a country mile), and arguably, still, the best option with the gloves available to India.
But another spate of low scores – or an excruciating 25-30 at a strike rate hovering around 50, in particular – could force upon India some uncomfortable questions.
The first of them is likely to be around the absence of Rishabh Pant from the ODI squad altogether.
3. Who Is the Best Number 6?
What may be close to being addressed at number four, may not be so definitely answered two positions later.
India have tried 11 different options at number six, too, in the 73 ODIs they have played since exiting the 2015 World Cup in the semi-finals.
A vast majority of those trials have been fleeting – unsurprising, given it’s among the more fluid roles in a typical ODI batting order – but in 33 out of 51 total innings where India have lost a fourth wicket, either Dhoni or Kedar Jadhav has walked out at the spot.
At Number 6 Since Apr 2015
- Dhoni: Innings 17, Runs 465, Average 46.50, Strike Rate 76.73
- Jadhav: Innings 16, Runs 595, Average 66.11, Strike Rate 119.71
The numbers make it a no-brainer.
Jadhav assumes even greater significance in the Indian ODI setup with his bowling exploits – for a country used to a majority of its batsmen being ‘batting all-rounders’, India find themselves in a strange position where none of their batting options barring Jadhav can turn an arm over.
Hardik Pandya maybe a locked value at number seven, but his unreliability as a 10-over sure-shot with the ball makes Jadhav’s overs vital to the cause.
You just know Kohli, Ravi Shastri and co. are praying for the soon-to-be 34-year-old Jadhav’s hamstring to stay in place.
4. Could Jadeja Displace the ‘Wristies’?
When India failed to win the Champions Trophy in 2017, beaten by Pakistan in the final, no aspect of the team was ‘found out’ more than the spinners.
R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja’s ineffectiveness with the white ball in English conditions was exposed in both of India’s defeats during the tournament (including a group-stage loss against Sri Lanka).
Nothing was said out loud, but Ashwin hasn't been in any Indian ODI squad since being 'rested' for the home series against Australia in September-October 2017, and Jadeja only earned a recall at last year’s Asia Cup – that too after originally-selected Axar Patel was injured.
That series versus Australia was the first time India blooded the wrist-spin duo of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, and the duo’s numbers have been more than impressive.
ODIs Since Sep 2017
- Chahal: Matches 27, Wickets 45, Average 25.91, Economy 4.91
- Kuldeep: Matches 26, Wickets 56, Average 19.92, Economy 4.93
- Jadeja: Matches 8, Wickets 14, Average 24.57, Economy 4.59
The ‘wristies’ had appeared to have sealed their berths in India’s potential XI for England 2019, but Jadeja’s comeback in coloured clothing has been a successful one, even if against somewhat lesser opponents.
The left-hander’s ability to contribute with the bat, and unparalleled fielding prowess, throws a bit of a curve-ball.
With no question of fielding three spinners in England come the World Cup, this could be a race going down to the wire.
5. Are There Back-Ups to Bhuvi-Bumrah?
There can be no debate around India’s first-choice fast-bowling combination at the World Cup – Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah have formed one of the better pace combines in white-ball cricket around the world.
Their frugality at the death (Bumrah’s in particular) has allowed Kohli to have significantly lesser head-scratching moments at the back-end of an innings than his predecessor, who surely considers the what-may-have-beens when he stands behind the stumps between overs 40-50 nowadays.
With Pandya a shoo-in when fit, India have three fast-bowling options settled.
But what happens when conditions dictate you cannot field two spinners? Or, if Kumar/Bumrah get injured? Or, they reach the World Cup burnt out by the workload of the preceding IPL?
The last of those scenarios is an unlikely one, if Kohli’s thoughts are taken seriously enough, but the eight upcoming ODIs in the Trans-Tasman will serve as an audition for the remaining slot(s) in the World Cup squad.
With Bumrah having been given a well-earned rest for the ODIs in Australia and New Zealand, Mohammed Shami and Khaleel Ahmed will look to force themselves into the reckoning.
Twenty-one-year-old Ahmed has displayed promise in a brief stint at the highest level, picking 11 wickets in six matches through the Asia Cup and the series against West Indies.
Shami might consider himself a little fortunate, as he was dropped from the squad after conceding 140 runs in 20 overs in the first two games of the Windies series.
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