The last time India toured Australia, they finished it by reaching the final of the T20 World Cup that pulled in a record-breaking crowd for women’s cricket at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

This time around, the objective and setting is a bit different. While the focus of the tour Down Under is the first-ever multi-format series between the two sides, replicating the format of the Ashes that includes a pink-ball day-night Test, the most important aspect will be the ODI series starting first up.

The three-match One-Day International series in Australia is India’s chance to nail down the blueprint of team combination and tactics ahead of the ODI World Cup early next year. Coming against the undisputed best side in the world, on a record 24-match unbeaten ODI streak stretching back to 2018, it will be both a big test and opportunity.

“Playing the best side in the world ahead of the World Cup is the best preparation we can get,” said India captain Mithali Raj said in the pre-match virtual interaction.

Coach Ramesh Powar was very clear about the main goal of the team before they head to New Zealand next year. “Moving towards World Cup, we have set targets that we want to be consistent. Batting unit is looking at scoring 250, bowling unit is looking to get the opposition all out and support Jhulan Goswami,” he said.

But this will be easier said than done, judging by the last two ODI series India played – losing to South Africa at home in March and in England in July. The losses were characterised by batting collapses, slowing down in strike-rate and the erratic display from the bowlers. On that front, the coach’s targets are reasonable but there are many moving parts to get that simple command into action.

World Cup preparation in focus as Mithali Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur & Co embark on tour of Australia

In the pre-series press interaction, the captain and coach insisted, multiple times, that all their plans depend on team combination and composition without elaborating much. If the sole warm-up game India played, losing by 20 runs, is any indication, India are looking to try a different approach to this problem: a batting reshuffle.

Captain Mithali Raj batted at No 3, after coming in at two-down or lower for most of the last World Cup cycle while India went without Punam Raut and Jemimah Rodrigues, picking uncapped left-hand batter Yastika Bhatia instead. While Mithali had a low score, Bhatia shined with a 42-ball 41 at No. 4. This combination is a likely indicator of where the team and a lot will depend on its success as the middle order is one of India’s biggest areas of concerns.

The second opener and No 3 spot has seen a fair bit of shuffle with Punam Raut, Jemimah Rodrigues tried in both roles while Deepti Sharma and Harmanpreet Kaur moved into different slots as well. But with Smriti Mandhana finally getting a settled partner in Shafali Verma, there is a chance for a more dynamic middle order even at the cost of the two experienced Mumbai batters missing out further.

A major blow for India though is that Harmanpreet Kaur is out of the first ODI with what is a third different injury this year. Despite her indifferent form in England, this leaves a void in the middle order that is prone to quick collapses and means that India is a big-hitter less in a line up largely devoid of that trait anyway.

“I’ve been flexible with my batting position, but whether I bat at No 3 or 4 depends on the composition of the team and the middle order. With Harmanpreet out of the first ODI, it will depend on that probably,” Mithali said of batting at No 3.

Powar added later, “Jemimah is part of our thought process, it’s about combination as we are looking at the best composition ahead of the World Cup. She may or may not play, we are taking it one match at a time.”

Whether Raut (in good form in the last two series but largely an anchor like Mithali) or Rodrigues (who struck form in style at The Hundred) feature in a full strength side is still debatable. The middle order will certainties are Harmanpreet (when fit) and Deepti Sharma with all-rounder Sneh Rana, Pooja Vastrakar and the wicketkeeper-bat (Taniya Bhatia is the incumbent but there is a chance to see Richa Ghosh there as well). It will be interesting to see what Mithali and Powar choose – stability or dynamism.

The bowling combination is much simpler but the task facing them is tougher. With talented all-rounders like Vastrakar, Rana and Sharma already in the mix, the biggest toss-up will be for the role of the third pacer. Powar said that experienced pacer Shikha Pandey was fit but she did not feature in the warm-up game, uncapped Meghna Singh being preferred instead. If the aim is to give her the experience needed, Singh is likely to be played in the first match at least. Among the spinners, Poonam Yadav – who had a wonderful tour of Australia last year – is likely to lead the attack with Ekta Bisht and Rajeshwari Gayakwad as back-up.

The pitch for the first ODI is said to be fast and bouncy, amplifying Australia’s strength. The hosts will be without seasoned pacer Megan Schutt, rising star Tayla Vlaeminck and star spinner Jess Jonassen but Ellyse Perry, Annabel Sutherland, Darcie Brown, Maitlan Brown, Hannah Darlington, Tahlia McGrath, and potential debutant Stella Campbell are all capable pacers who can make merry in such conditions. Spinners in Ashleigh Gardner, Sophie Molineux and Georgia Wareham have plenty of experience against India as well. Their batting already is at full strength with the likes of Alyssa Healy, Meg Lanning, Perry, Rachael Haynes and Beth Mooney.

Australia have not played international cricket for close to six months and India have been in hard quarantine for two weeks. But none of that will matter when the two teams with a burgeoning rivalry take the field in Tuesday, India will simply need to be at their best to beat the best.

For Mithali Raj and Co though, the ODI series should not just be about countering the mighty Aussies but focussing on building their own might.

ODIs Schedule

Sep 21: First ODI, Great Barrier Reef Arena, Mackay

Sep 24: Second ODI, Great Barrier Reef Arena, Mackay (D/N)

Sep 26: Third ODI, Great Barrier Reef Arena, Mackay

The first match will be live on Sony Sports Network in India from 5.35 AM.