The ICC World Cup is almost three months away but for the Indian cricket team, the five-match ODI series against Australia starting here on Saturday offers the last chance to conduct preparatory tests to button down the England-bound squad.
By the own admission of chairman of selectors, M S K Prasad, nearly much of the squad has been finalised with a decision remaining only on 2-3 spots. The men who are seemingly battling for those few remaining tickets are — dashing wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant, seaming all-rounder Vijay Shankar, left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja and seasoned wicketkeeper-batsman Dinesh Karthik. With Karthik -- who not long ago admitted the team has entrusted him the finisher’s role and had performed that job reasonably well -- not picked for this series, the spotlight will be on the remaining three over the next fortnight.
Of the three, Shanker looks the most likely to start at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium following an injury blow to Hardik Pandya. Ever since his debut during the Nidahas T20 tri-series in Sri Lanka exactly a year ago, the 28-year-old Tamil Nadu cricketer has made a decent impression with the bat. He played just one innings (four matches) in the 50-over format where, arriving with the team in deep trouble at 18/4 in the final ODI against New Zealand, scored a 64-ball 45 to stem the rot. Like Pandya, he is a brilliant fielder in the deep, an aspect this team lays major emphasis on. His only area of concern is his gentle medium pace bowling and there are doubts whether he can be trusted upon to bowl six-seven overs consistently. Shanker would be determined to showcase that side of his game.
Many former players, including the great Shane Warne, want the big-hitting Pant to be in the playing XI. They feel Pant’s fearless and brutal hitting could be the X factor India needs. Southpaw Pant also brings in the left-right combination in play and is the ideal back-up for veteran Dhoni. However, much of Pant’s success has come in IPL and Test cricket while in the 15 T20Is and three ODIs he’s played so far, he actually has been a letdown. Although Karthik has not been chosen for this series, Pant is well aware the Tamil Nadu batsman has made a strong case for himself. If Pant has to dislodge him and emerge as the wildcard pick, he really needs to make his willow talk big.
With Kohli expected to field his two frontline tweakers Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav considering they are playing at home where conditions suit them, Jadeja may not get a look-in at all. A stump to stump bowler, an exceptional fielder and a decent lower-order batsman, Jadeja is a good package but the southpaw had been out of the limited-over scheme of things since 2017 Champions Trophy before earning a surprise recall for the Asia Cup last year. Chances for him to prove his worth are limited but if gets it, he’ll be determined to make it count.
That apart, the Indians would also be looking at protecting an enviable record. They have won the last six bilateral series at home and 12 of the last 13. They play like kings in their own bastion and rule opponents with a wonderful mix of grace and power.
Australia, with the momentum in their side following the 2-0 win in the preceding T20I series, will be attempting another coup but they very well know the enormity of the task. India, no doubt, start favourites but Aussies will be hoping to spring a surprise.
Squads (from): INDIA: Virat Kohli (captain), Rohit Sharma (vice-captain), Shikhar Dhawan, Ambati Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav, MS Dhoni (wicketkeeper), Ravindra Jadeja, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Vijay Shankar, Rishabh Pant, Siddharth Kaul, K L Rahul.
AUSTRALIA: Aaron Finch (capt), Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, Glenn Maxwell, Ashton Turner, Marcus Stoinis, Alex Carey, Pat Cummins, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Jhye Richardson, Jason Behrendorff, Nathan Lyon, Adam Zampa, Andrew Tye.