After more than two months of action, India’s tour of Ireland and England finally came to a close earlier this week. In what was, after all, Virat Kohli – the batsman’s – final frontier, the Indian captain came out with flying colours, whereas the team suffered a familiar fate in Tests. The focus will now shift to India’s next trip to the UK eight months from now for an equally important mission for Kohli – as a captain – with the 2019 Cricket World Cup.

With the Asia Cup being the first big test in the lead-up to the World Cup (with five of the 10 teams at the World Cup involved), the preparations and fine-tuning of squads begin here and now. While Kohli has been rested, the rest of India’s big guns in limited-overs cricket are present in UAE. MS Dhoni once said that he wanted his team for the World Cup to be settled in the lead-up to the tournament, knowing who is core players are well in advance. While the Indian white-ball set-up does have a largely settled look, there are a few issues to be sorted.

As we have written previously, the road to the World Cup has already thrown up some fascinating storylines. From the emergence of Hardik Pandya, to the dominance of the wrist-spin twins and the conundrum of the No 4 slot, there is plenty to talk about the Indian squad’s build-up to the 10-team event in England and Wales as Kohli looks to win his first major ICC trophy.

Along those lines, we start a new series where we look at the ladder, so to speak, of the potential Indian World Cup squad. This is a ranking of players, starting with those who are dead-certain to make the squad, and going down the rung in decreasing order of their chances of making it to the final 15. This list is not what the writer feels should be the final squad, but a guesstimate of what Kohli and the Indian selectors are likely to pick.

So, without further ado, here’s our first take at the 2019 World Cup ladder.

(Note: The first few slots are guaranteed picks, and the order is purely subjective. Also, the first 11 of the list doesn’t necessarily have to be the first-choice playing XI.)

  1. Virat Kohli

Number one. Nothing else to add here. The best all-format player in the world, India are blessed to have Virat Kohli in their ranks and unless he suffers an injury or the entire planet meets a premature end in the next eight months, he will be India’s leader and biggest weapon in their quest to reclaim the trophy.

2. Rohit Sharma

The most dangerous opening batsman in ODIs in the world right now? The numbers would tell you so. Three double centuries in the 50-over format, plenty of runs in the Champions Trophy last year and on the white-ball leg of the 2018 tour, the tag of vice-captain – it’s fair to say, Rohit is the obvious choice for the second place.

3. Kuldeep Yadav

Again, not much to add here. Kuldeep has fast risen as the biggest trump card for Kohli in the shorter formats, so much so that the captain was ready to rest him for the decider of (inconsequential) T20I series against England, and keep him fresh for the ODIs. 40 wickets at an average of 19.27 in the 17 innings he has bowled in the past 12 months – phenomenal numbers.

4. Hardik Pandya

The X-factor. Pandya might quite not be as important to the first XI as a few names below him on the list, but is the most crucial piece in the jigsaw puzzle – a seam-bowling all-rounder who is pretty good in all three departments is a rare commodity and his presence offers balance to Kohli. Compared to Stuart Binny in the 2015 squad, India have traded up significantly, Pandya’s struggles in England in the later stages notwithstanding.

5. Jasprit Bumrah

Quite simply, the best death bowler India have produced in a long time. His recent trysts with injuries is a bit of a concern and now that he is shaping into an all-format bowler, the selectors have a task at hand to keep the Mumbai Indians star fresh and firing for the World Cup.

6. Shikhar Dhawan

The Rohit-Dhawan opening pairing is one of the prime reasons for India winning in ODIs consistently, irrespective of where the team plays. They didn’t quite strike form as a partnership in the recent series in England but individually looked in good touch. Dhawan’s occasionally infuriating ability to waste good starts is the reason he features at this position in this list and not next to Rohit and Kohli. It’s well established now that India win more often when the top three fires and Dhawan’s role in that cannot be under-estimated. Dhawan’s stellar white-ball record in England is significant too.

7. MS Dhoni

Oh, look. Dhoni and No 7. It’s the perfect match, no? In all seriousness, the former captain would have figured higher up this list, had this been written after the IPL and before the ODI series in England. Dhoni had a phenomenal season in the IPL, with the cricketing world raving about the return of the finisher.

That overwhelming sense of positivity has been scuppered after his laborious displays during the limited-overs series in England in July, in what was seen as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. While he was far from the main reason for India’s defeats in the second and third ODIs, his batting form and position were subjects of intense debate.

It’s been evident for a while now that Dhoni is not the same force he once was in the 50-over format but the fact remains that he is still, hands down, the best wicketkeeper India have. That, along with his inputs from behind the wicket, make it all but certain that he will be selected for the World Cup – unless, of course, he drops a bombshell as he has done in the past and calls it quits earlier.

8. Yuzvendra Chahal

One of the beneficiaries of India’s defeat in the 2017 Champions Trophy final, Chahal hasn’t looked back since his six-wicket haul in a T20I against England in Bengaluru. His numbers have taken a hit just in the recent past (he averages a little over 25 in the past year compared to Kuldeep’s 19.27), with batsmen realising they have to attack one of the Indian spinners and not let both Chahal and Kuldeep dictate terms. On the contrary, he offers more control to Kohli than Kuldeep does. Either way, one of India’s primary weapons.

9. Bhuvneshwar Kumar

Much like Dhoni, Kumar would have featured higher up in the list but for the recent England series. A definite starter, especially in England, Bhuvi just has to address his fitness issues. Despite the think-tank’s efforts to manage his workload, his back has now bothered him for a bit too long. It’s one of those injuries that, if it turns out to be chronic, could end a fast bowler’s career. And India would be praying his current setback is nothing of that sort. With his return to action in the Asia Cup, India would be hoping he hits the ground running straight away.

10. KL Rahul

Remember when we said the first 11 players to feature in this list do not necessarily have to be the first-choice playing XI? That was a disclaimer for this particular slot. On the basis of talent, and on current white-ball form, there is not a single reason for Rahul to not make the squad for the World Cup. A shoo-in for the squad but not a certainty in the XI, thanks to India’s No 4 dilemma. It’ll be interesting to see how Rohit uses him in the Asia Cup in Kohli’s absence.

11. Dinesh Karthik

Based on the fact that he was the batsman Kohli turned to (not for the first time) in the series decider against England to fill in at the No 4 slot when his first choice didn’t quite work out, Karthik is seen as a genuine batting option in the middle order for India, his disastrous Test series notwithstanding. And it’s handy that he is a top-class wicketkeeper, as it’s unlikely India would name a final squad with just one proper wicketkeeping option. The Asia Cup becomes especially crucial for Karthik in Rishabh Pant’s absence but if the youngster cashes in the next time he is picked for a limited-overs series, the Tamil Nadu gloveman will slide down this ladder quickly.

12. Axar Patel

The KXIP spinner (all-rounder?) is this high up, relatively, by virtue of being a regular in the recent Indian team ODI squads. Another one to benefit from Jadeja and Ashwin’s exclusion from the white-ball set-up as a fallout of the Champions Trophy final defeat, Patel remains the third-choice spinner for this squad, and should get game time in the Asia Cup. A good IPL for Krunal Pandya in 2019, however, could change this slot but that’s for another time.

13. Kedar Jadhav

This is where it starts getting tough. There’s not much to choose between him and Ambati Rayudu, given the latter was called up for the England series originally before the curse of the Yo-Yo struck. But despite being out of action since the beginning of IPL, Jadhav’s stock has, at worst, held steady if not risen. He has been something of a constant feature in India’s middle order, ever since Dhoni asked him to bowl against New Zealand in the 2016 series. And Raina’s insipid performances with the bat and ball against England meant Jadhav immediately earned his spot back as the batsman who could be the sixth bowler, soon as he regained fitness. It’s now up to him to hold on, but watch out for this space.

14. Ambati Rayudu

Just when one thought Rayudu could be left ruing a failed fitness test when India play the World Cup next year, he gets another shot in the Asia Cup. On the back of a phenomenal IPL season, it felt like Rayudu’s well-deserved call-up to the Indian squad for England could have offered a solution to the No 4 situation. He is, after all, much more comfortable playing there, compared to Rahul and Karthik. For the man who was part of the 2015 World Cup squad, without getting a game, there was a brief window that opened after the IPL. The fact that the middle order continues to be an issue for Kohli has just about ensured the window remains ever so slightly open.

15. Shardul Thakur

Another toughie. A regular in the second string for India, Thakur is often the first name to be called up when one of the frontline pacers get injured or is offered a rest. Being with the Test squad in England should hold the Mumbaikar in good stead as well and his time with the team has rewarded him with an Asia Cup call-up ahead of the likes of Umesh Yadav, Siddharth Kaul and Mohammed Siraj. With the selectors going on record saying the fast bowler slot is one that is still up for grabs in the World Cup squad, Thakur now seems to have the vantage position. A good Asia Cup showing might just be his ticket to the marquee event eight months from now.

Looking in from the outside...

16. Manish Pandey

If this was written a month back, this man wouldn’t have featured so high up.

But with scores of 95*, 21*, 117*, 73* in the recent quadrangular series, Pandey once again puts his name in the hat — as he often does when you write him off.

His match-winning Sydney hundred (in January 2016) was supposed to be the turning point for the undoubtedly talented Pandey. But since then, it’s been a case of missed opportunities, and sometimes, lack thereof. In the 43 ODIs India have played since that time, Pandey has only featured in 18 of those matches. A combination of a poor run of form for India and in IPL 2018 has seen Pandey drop down significantly in the pecking order. And when it seemed like an uphill climb for a man who was seen a genuine contender for the No 4 slot, he is back in the Asia Cup squad and has a chance to stake claim once again.

17. Umesh Yadav

This is a bit of a puzzle. In Bumrah and Bhuvi’s absence, Umesh was Kohli’s go-to bowler in England during the white-ball leg and he has been largely impressive since the IPL – drastically cutting down on the number of times he makes you tear your hear apart by straying in length and not bowling to his fields. But despite not being used during the Test series after the first match, Umesh did not make the cut for the Asia Cup squad and no explanation has been offered.

18. Krunal Pandya

It’s a bit of a shame that the elder Pandya brother is still an outsider when it comes to Indian squad discussions. Despite consistent performances during the IPL, he has not yet been able to break into the national team. But you sense that it is only a matter of time because Krunal offers a potential solution to problem areas for Kohli – a spin-bowling all-rounder and a finisher who can ease the pressure on Dhoni. For the same reasons mentioned for Jadhav above, Krunal is still very much in contention despite ordinary returns in the A tour of England and the quadrangular.

19. Rishabh Pant

Undoubtedly, the future of Indian cricket. Pant will still be 21 when the World Cup comes along and will shoot up this ladder in the unlikely event Dhoni decides his time is up. The only thing that goes against the dasher from Delhi, as things stand, is the lack of a statement-making innings in the odd chance that he gets for the men in blue – although his maiden Test century should go some way in filling the youngster’s head with confidence.

20. Siddharth Kaul

Another player riding on the high of having a good IPL season. Kaul, perhaps, did not make the most of his chances during the ODI series in England, getting dropped (or rested, if you go with what Kohli said) for the third ODI. But after Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah, he is arguably the best death bowler in India right now. Perhaps a tad unfortunate to miss out on selection for the Asia Cup.

21. Shreyas Iyer

Hasn’t exactly amassed runs in great numbers, but Iyer is a clear investment for the future. He has made it to the ODI squad for South Africa and England, has age on his side and was chosen to lead the India A team on British shores in the 50-over-format as well in the quadrangular series at home, to get him more game time when the Indians were playing irrelevant T20Is. But his form hasn’t exactly set the pulse racing for the selectors it would seem. And after consistently making the cut, the youngster missed out on Asia Cup despite Kohli’s absence from the team. Scores of 67, 7, 20, 4, 44, 0 in his last six List A appearances might be why.

22. Deepak Chahar

A maiden call-up to the Indian squad was almost inevitable if you are the best medium-pacer for the IPL-winning side, especially if that side is Chennai Super Kings. Chahar impressed for India A in England, taking 16 wickets in six matches he played ahead of his T20I debut in Ireland. He is handy with the bat as well and should figure in the discussions, as things stand, should any of the front-line options be unavailable ahead of the World Cup.

23. Khaleel Ahmed

“Two to three slots we are yet to finalise, so for those slots we are trying and we’ll look at these 24 matches [in the lead-up to the World Cup]. You’ll come to know the slots more specifically as we go ahead ... Among those, one of those seamers’ slots is open. We are looking at a left-arm option in Khaleel.”

With this one statement from chief selector MSK Prasad, Khaleel has shot up in this ladder out of nowhere primarily because of what he offers this team as a left-arm pacer. He might get a chance or two in the Asia Cup and should he grab them; keep an eye out.

24. Vijay Shankar

Another reason for Pandya featuring so high up on this list is the fact that the next best option India have for the seam-bowling all-rounder is Vijay Shankar. Without any offence to the Tamil Nadu all-rounder, that’s a significant drop in quality.

25. Suresh Raina

In hindsight, a bizarre decision to recall a 31-year-old Raina to the squad for England as a replacement for Rayudu, one year before the World Cup. He had a good IPL, all right, but did he deserve a spot before a younger option who could have been blooded? All said and done, Raina’s batting on the tour of Ireland and England didn’t exactly do his case any favours. If Kohli needs a sixth bowler who can bat, the time between now and the World Cup would be best utilised to find better options. The Asia Cup omission wasn’t really a surprise.

26. Prithvi Shaw

This would be a truly left-field call and a massive long shot, but the captain of the U-19 World Cup winning team showed he can shine on the big stage with a few gutsy knocks during the IPL and with a couple of List A centuries to his name as the opener during the India A tour of England, he has kept himself in the reckoning as the back-up should one of Sharma, Dhawan or Rahul suffer an unfortunate injury or a serious dip in form.

27. Mayank Aggarwal

28. R Ashwin

29. Ravindra Jadeja

30. Mohammed Shami

31. K Gowtham

32. Shreyas Gopal

33. Prasidh Krishna

34. Mohammed Siraj

35. Shubman Gill