Jos Buttler and Eoin Morgan reckon India will be front-runners at the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup in October. Virat Kohli, on the other hand, feels England are the team to beat, given they are the No 1 side in the world.

Of course, England are the world champions in 50-over format, and the No 1 ranked ODI and T20I side in the world. Of course, Kohli and Co will have the advantage of playing in home conditions not long after a full-fledged Indian Premier League that should get them used to it. Of course, there is very little point in discussing favourites this early in a World Cup year, especially in times of the pandemic and bio-secure bubbles. You just don’t know what the next day holds.

But mind games from the two camps apart, the undeniable fact is that this five-match T20I series starting in Ahmedabad on Friday will go a long way towards telling the two teams (and their fans) of where they stand. Are things heading in the right direction? What is working well? What are the problem areas?

For England, it’s a problem of plenty and the headaches begin from picking the right XI from a pool of ridiculously talented white-ball players. For India, with fresh blood added to the squad, it is a question of fine-tuning their approach to the shortest format at the international level.

And in what was a good sign for the hosts, Kohli made the right noises ahead of what promises to be an acid-test for the two teams.

“The kind of players we have added into the squad is precisely to give our batting line-up more depth and not play in a similar kind of pattern that we have played with in the past,” Kohli said on Thursday, ahead of the first T20I.

X-factors on show

Kohli, while talking about the additions to the squad, also spoke about wanting to have batting depth. In Ravindra Jadeja’s absence, that becomes especially crucial and it will be interesting to see the bowling combination India go with.

Whether the tracks that did not quite aid run-scoring in Ahmedabad during Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy will be repeated for the series of this nature remains to be seen, but the batting firepower in both camps will make for mouthwatering match-ups.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for us to play in conditions where we will be playing the World Cup,” England’s explosive batsman-keeper Buttler had recently said.

For Indian vice-captain Rohit Sharma, it’s all about focussing on the present.

“If we focus on the present, the future will take care of itself. It’s a long series and it’s important to see where we stand as a team and individual,” Rohit had said.

While there are more advantages of having multiple options, fashionably described as a “happy headache” for any captain, there are a few pitfalls that come with such a situation. The Indian team understands this fully well, having burnt its hands during the 2019 World Cup. Too much experimentation might prove counter-productive once again.

However, on the eve of the first T20 International, Kohli made it clear that his deputy Rohit Sharma and the flamboyant KL Rahul will be the settled first-choice opening combination going into this series with Shikhar Dhawan being in the reserves.

“If Rohit plays, then it’s simple. KL (Rahul) and Rohit have been performing consistently at the top of the order for us and those two will start,” Kohli was unambiguous in his reply that the seasoned Shikhar Dhawan will have to wait.

“In a situation, Rohit takes rest and KL has a niggle or something, Shikhi (Dhawan’s nickname in team) obviously comes in as the third opener but the starting composition, Rohit and Rahul will be the ones who will start.”

Middle-order options

Elsewhere, India have a few options to pick from for the middle order. While Suryakumar Yadav is a sentimental favourite for many in Indian cricket, fellow Mumbaikar Shreyas Iyer looks to be the likely starter at least in the first couple of games in that middle-order slot at No 4 or 5 depending upon the match situation, reported PTI. Whether both of them can play will depend on the bowling combination Kohli opts for.

Rishabh Pant, having been named as the wicket-keeper during the squad announcement, will take over the gloves from Rahul and hope he can continue his sensational form in 2021. Hardik Pandya will be itching to go after warming the bench during the Test series but it is unclear yet if he can be considered the fifth bowler. There is also the temptation of Ishan Kishan and his six-hitting skills in the middle overs.

Archive: Lack of dynamism in India’s batting is a problem Kohli must address soon

India used Sanju Samson in a go-hard-from-the-word-go role in Australia but it did not come for the newly-appointed Rajasthan Royals captain and he finds himself out of favour. While it is good that India have recognised a freer batting approach as an area to work on, the players might find that the consequences of such an approach not coming off would mean getting left out. It is a fine line.

“We want to be a side that plays free cricket, not have any baggage of lack of depth and one guy having to bat long enough to make sure we get to a big total. We have explosive batsmen in the team now, who can change the game at any stage even if you are two or three wickets down.

“That’s exactly what we’ve tried to address in picking this squad. So this time around, you will see guys a bit more expressive in terms of approaching the innings, and playing more freely. Not worried about whether we have enough batsmen to take care of things if we lose a couple of wickets early, which was the case before to be honest. We didn’t have enough depth in the batting to be able to play freely throughout the first 10 or 12 overs. But I see us being much more positive and free from here on,” he added.

With the unavailability of T Natarajan in the bowling department (reportedly nursing an injury) Bhuvneshwar Kumar will be back leading the attack alongside another senior bowler in Yuzvendra Chahal.

With England’s weakness against slow bowlers’ well-documented in these conditions, Chahal will likely have Washington Sundar for company which leaves Shardul Thakur, Deepak Chahar and Navdeep Saini in a three-way battle for the second seamer’s slot.

For England, the white-ball format presents them with multi-skilled cricketers like Ben Stokes, Sam Curran and Moeen Ali for starters, who can change the complexion of any game in either department. Throw in specialists like pacers Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, Chris Jordan and wrist spinner Adil Rashid, it will be a contest where India can never be termed firm favourites.

The next week and half would be an indication as to which direction the teams are headed in terms of preparations for the marquee event later this year. Kohli has made the right comments, he has been given the right options to crack this format — it is now over to getting things right on the field, and prepare towards adding that elusive ICC trophy to his captaincy collection. Make no mistake, the test begins here.


India: Virat Kohli (captain), Rohit Sharma (vice-captain), KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav, Rishabh Pant (wk), Hardik Pandya, Yuzvendra Chahal, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Axar Patel, Washington Sundar, Shardul Thakur, Navdeep Saini, Deepak Chahar, Rahul Tewatia, Ishan Kishan (wicketkeeper).

England: Eoin Morgan (captain), Joss Buttler, Jason Roy, Liam Livingstone, Dawid Malan, Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Reece Topley, Chris Jordan, Mark Wood, Sam Curran, Tom Curran, Sam Billings, Jonny Bairstow, Jofra Archer.

Match Starts at 7 pm IST and will be broadcast on the Star Sports network in India.

With PTI inputs