Sport has a funny way of putting things in perspective. On the same day that Virat Kohli beamed in front of a global audience and said that India’s Test series win in Australia was the proudest moment of his career, a controversy involving his teammates was starting to unfold back in India.
Fast forward to a day before the one-day series begins Down Under, Kohli was left to answer questions about team spirit not being affected.
Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul were with the team in Sydney when their pre-recorded interview on television talk show Koffee with Karan aired last Sunday evening. And just as the euphoria of the Test series win started to die down, the outrage over some of the things said by Pandya (and to a lesser extent, Rahul) on the talk show has now reached fever pitch. To make the interview-from-hell worse, the drama around it has been played out openly by the Indian cricket board.
The Indian team management didn’t announce a shortlist of players for the first ODI, as is now the norm, and opted to wait to hear from the BCCI on the two players’ availability. But with a suspension all but confirmed, pending an inquiry, it won’t be a stretch to assume we are unlikely to see Pandya and Rahul take the field during these three matches.
On some level, it would come as relief to the team and most of its followers that the attention can soon turn to the actual cricket from Saturday, as Sydney hosts first of the three ODIs between the two sides. This is the final stretch before the World Cup, and both India and Australia will look to fine-tune their preparations (well, the hosts need more than just a fine-tune).
India’s ODI record in Australia is quite poor. Apart from the 1985 World Championship and 2008 tri-series wins, they have lost 35 out of 48 ODIs played against Australia on their home soil. And much like the Test series, this rubber offers Kohli a great chance to improve those numbers, with Australia coming off their worst calendar year in ODI history – they won just two matches in 2018.
Here are some key questions facing Kohli and India ahead of the three-match series:
How will India cope without Bumrah?
Rahul, perhaps, was unlikely to get a go anyway partly due to his poor form as well as the presence of a well-settled opening pair in Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan. The bigger question though is regarding Pandya’s absence, for the all-rounder tends to provide balance to the ODI side with his ability to bowl 10 overs as well as bat in the middle order.
Pandya’s absence could mean that India might have to rejig their bowling attack. Jasprit Bumrah has already been rested for this series, as well as the tour of New Zealand, and this allows the think-tank to conduct one final experiment with their bowling attack.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar is a shoe-in, and thereafter it depends if Kohli wants to go in with a three-man pace attack to compensate for Pandya’s loss.
In such a scenario, Mohammed Shami and Khaleel Ahmed are expected to get the nod, as India continue zeroing on the pace quartet for the World Cup squad. There is a sprinkling of grass on the SCG pitch and it could push the Indian skipper to opt for a three-pacers-and-two-spinners combination.
MS Dhoni’s form
With the two openers, and Kohli at number three, the remaining batting line-up picks itself. MS Dhoni and Ambati Rayudu will form the middle order, with Jadhav to follow, and there will be keen interest in their form.
Dhoni had an off-colour 2018, managing 275 runs in 20 ODIs at an average of 25 without a half-century. While this is a meagre return for a batsman of his stature, the worrying aspect is Dhoni’s strike-rate of 71.42, which is remarkably lower than his ODI career strike-rate of 87.89.
The Indian middle-order has often come unstuck with Dhoni at the crease, and the team management will be hoping for a fiery start to the year from the stalwart, who has been out of action since the West Indies ODI series ended in November.
Can Rayudu carry on the good work?
India brought in Rayudu for the all-important number four role, and since the Asia Cup last September, have given him a long run in the middle order. In this interim, Rayudu scored 392 runs in 11 ODIs in the Asia Cup and against West Indies, at an average of 56, including a hundred and three half-centuries.
While he put in a more consistent showing than any of the other previously tried contenders, this run came in conditions different from those in England. As such, how Rayudu fares on this twin tour of Australia and New Zealand will be a closer representation of whether the Indian team has finally cracked the number-four quandary.
Similar middle-order issues plagued the visitors when they last toured Australia for an ODI contest, losing 4-1 in January 2016 when Dhoni was still captain. Sharma and Kohli topped the charts with 441 and 381 runs in the five-match series respectively, while Dhawan also scored 287 runs. But there were no sizeable contributions from the middle order. Only Manish Pandey’s fighting hundred in the final ODI had saved India from a 5-0 scoreline.
Rayudu would do well to add consistency to the undoubted ability he has to do well in the middle of the order for India.
The second spinner situation
Kohli also stated that, in Pandya’s absence, Ravindra Jadeja would need to step up as the all-rounder. In that light, he would partner up with left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav as India’s five-pronged attack, with Kedar Jadhav fulfilling any part-time bowling duties if needed. Yuzvendra Chahal will miss out in that scenario.
“If you see the last few matches that we played in UAE and India, we could play a finger spinner and a wrist spinner, but in South Africa and England two wrist spinners were critical for our success,” he said.
“We have to look at the pitch. If it’s really dry and a finger spinner is in favour of being featured, we will go with the same combination that we have been going with.
“If it is flat and won’t provide anything [for the bowlers], the two wrist spinners become a more attacking and more feasible option. We’ll have to figure out based on the conditions but both scenarios are pretty much in play,” he added.
Australia: Aaron Finch (c), Alex Carey (wk) Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Stoinis, Glenn Maxwell, Nathan Lyon, Peter Siddle, Jhye Richardson, Jason Behrendorff.
India (from): Virat Kohli (c), Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Ambati Rayudu, Dinesh Karthik, Kedar Jadhav, MS Dhoni (wk), Hardik Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Siraj, Khaleel Ahmed, Mohammed Shami.
(With PTI inputs)