On the face of it, India’s seven-wicket win in Melbourne is another tick on India’s checklist in their quest for world supremacy. With this bilateral series win, India became the first team in history to go through an entire tour without coming as the second best across formats in Australia.
There was also MS Dhoni’s welcome return to run-scoring ways, even if his tedious 96-ball 51 in Adelaide drew a lot of flak. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who didn’t feature at all in the Tests, was the standout performer in the One-Day Internationals. While Kuldeep Yadav did his job in the first two matches of the series, fellow spinner Yuzvendra Chahal made an emphatic return to form in the decider.
Kedar Jadhav, like Chahal, also didn’t feature in the first two ODIs but returned with a bang, taking India home in a tricky run-chase.
Dhoni’s mature display at No 4 in the final game may have given a dash of confidence but also gives Virat Kohli a lot more options to play with.
Does that mean Ambati Rayudu will have to go back to the bench? What happens to the team combination when Hardik Pandya returns from his suspension? Where does KL Rahul stand in the scheme of things now? Rishabh Pant was left out of the ODI squad and won’t feature in New Zealand either. If the 21-year-old does play in the home series against Australia in February and fails, does that mean he could potentially miss out on a spot to England in June?
One never knows what is on Kohli’s mind and the Indian skipper has shown the tendency to spring a surprise with his playing XI. Keeping the World Cup in mind, here are some of the possible selection conundrums he will be grappling with:
Scenario: Playing Pandya
Assuming Dhoni, Jadhav and Dinesh Karthik take up the fourth, fifth, and sixth spots in the lineup, Pandya will have to contend with being India’s number seven.
Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, at this stage, are near-certainties to be India’s preferred pace-bowling duo. Pandya’s inclusion, then, gives India the option of playing an extra spinner, keeping in mind Yadav and Chahal’s success hunting as a pair, with Pandya being the third pacer. Before being suspended, Pandya regularly featured in Kohli’s plans as a lower-order finisher.
If Ravindra Jadeja makes the cut, there is a possibility of Pandya playing at six and the former slotting in at seven. That, though, would mean Jadhav would miss out and Karthik will be promoted to number five, weakening the batting lineup further. Given Jadeja’s inconsistency with the bat, would Kohli still be tempted to gamble with this lineup?
Possible lineup: Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli (c), MS Dhoni (wk), Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah
Scenario: Pandya with Jadeja
Traditionally, England have produced seam-friendly wickets. Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah may well have another pace option in Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav or young Khaleel Ahmed to work with.
If Pandya also features in the XI, Kohli will have four pace options to work with. The Indian camp have stressed the need for an all-rounder to lend balance to the side. In this scenario, Jadeja’s prowess with the bat may give him the edge over Chahal.
The risk of fielding this lineup is the top-heavy look of it. That being said, Dhawan, Sharma, and Kohli’s form has been provides India the leeway.
Having Pandya and Jadeja in the lineup also bolsters India as a fielding unit, given that the latter can make a genuine claim for being the world’s best in that department.
One can also be tempted to ask if India really needs six front-line bowling options. Like the top-order batsmen, Bhuvneshwar, Bumrah, and Kuldeep have been a consistent bowling force.
In this combination, it is likely that Chahal will be the player to miss out, as Kohli seems to trust Kuldeep Yadav more when it comes to taking wickets in the middle overs and providing him with control.
Lineup: Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli (c), MS Dhoni (wk), Dinesh Karthik, Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah
Scenario: Rayudu back in the XI
Before the ODI series got underway, the Indian camp were confident that they had found the man to make the No 4 spot his own. After swatting the tepid West Indians at home, Rayudu failed to get going against Australia in the first two ODIs. Jadhav’s triumphant return to the side and Dhoni shining as a two-down batsman has put Rayudu under pressure. It will be surprising, however, if the team management decides to discard the 33-year-old immediately, and he should get a run in New Zealand as well.
In the first two ODIs, India played with with Rayudu batting at four. But, Chahal also sat out with Jadeja batting at seven. Dhoni and Karthik were pushed down to the fifth and sixth position in the batting order. As discussed earlier, India had five front-line bowling options and achieved decent batting depth. The downside here being the lack of a sixth bowling option should one of the five bowlers have a bad day.
Scenario: Chahal to lead?
After starring in the only Test he played and the T20Is, Kuldeep Yadav had modest returns in the two ODIs he played. Chahal bamboozled the Australians at Melbourne, but does that mean the right-arm leg-spinner can now stake a claim to be the frontline spinner? The idea may be far-fetched as Kuldeep continues to be viewed as a trump card.
Kuldeep also comes with better batting chops.
The games that India have played over the past year is an indicator of what the think-tank’s go-to option is. Invariably, it has been Kuldeep who was picked as India’s lone spin operator.
What about Rishabh Pant and others on the fringe?
There is still no clarity with Pant’s role in the side. The belligerent wicket-keeper batsman will have only a handful of games to bulldoze his way into the XI, or even the 15, for the World Cup. After seemingly missing out after the Asia Cup, Dinesh Karthik has once again found his way to the XI and he comes with the specific skill-set of being a finisher, something head coach Ravi Shastri has specifically instructed Pant to work on in the upcoming India A series. Right now, it looks to be direct toss-up between Pant and Karthik for a berth in the World Cup squad.
Don’t forget all-rounder Vijay Shankar and Punjab’s Shubman Gill, who are expected to get more game time in New Zealand.
The road, however, looks steep for KL Rahul. While Pandya’s return to the team will answer more questions, Rahul — who was rarely getting a game as the third opener — will not find it easy should Gill impress when provided a chance.