Something Virat Kohli said in New Zealand last year, before the world entered a pandemic, lockdowns and what not, still rings true as India prepare to face England in a three-match One Day International series starting on Tuesday in Pune. Looking forward to a packed calendar that had a T20 World Cup and crucial World Test Championship matches to come, Kohli had said that the ODIs felt little less relevant in 2020.

Well, here we are in March 2021 and that sentiment feels largely relevant. A spot in the World Test Championship has been earned, a rollercoaster T20I series is done, and an IPL season is just over a fortnight away.

So when the Indian team takes on world champions England in the three-match ODI series, you could forgive both sides for thinking this is more of an opportunity to fine-tune their white-ball prowess more than winning or losing.

Make no mistake, both squads are quite strong despite missing some star names. And there is plenty riding on it for a few individuals too.

The series is particularly important for the 35-year-old Shikhar Dhawan, who returned to the bench after one T20I and is facing stiff competition in this format from rising youngsters.

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With the management having plenty of options inside the squad (Shubman Gill) and waiting on the outside (Prithvi Shaw and Devdutt Padikkal) for the opening slot, it will be a litmus test for Dhawan to prove himself in the lung-opener. He is expected to open the innings along with seasoned campaigner Rohit Sharma, who was in blistering form at the end of the T20 series and would be keen to carry on in the same vein.

The ODI format gives Dhawan the time he needs to build his innings. With loads of experience under his belt, the Delhi batsman could well return to form come Tuesday.

For the Indian team, the series would be an extension of its preparations for the T20 World Cup later this year. The 50-over-format, in general, remains low priority in 2021 with no major tournaments around the corner.

Skipper Virat Kohli was back among the runs in the T20 series against England and he would look to carry the momentum into the ODIs. It has been a while since Kohli scored a hundred in the format, his last and 43rd one coming against the West Indies (114 not out) at Port of Spain in August 2019. The wait for a 71st international ton could be coming to an end in his most prolific format. He will be itching to make his good form count and end the century drought.

The signs are that KL Rahul, who is not likely to feature at the top of the order, will be donning the gloves again and could slot in the middle order if Rishabh Pant gets a rest. The tables have turned on those cricketers and it is now Rahul back under pressure to find some runs, even if Kohli thinks the pressure being put on him is from the outside world and not the team management. A few good knocks will do him a world of good.

The middle-order will once again be propped up by Hardik Pandya and it will be interesting to see his bowling work load . There could be a toss-up between Mumbaikars Shreyas Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav, for one spot in the playing XI. Yadav proved himself to be quite a power-hitter in the T20 series, notching up a blistering half century in his maiden international appearance.

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The bowling attack is expected to be spearheaded by Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who picked four wickets in the T20 series. Shardul Thakur was impressive and claimed eight wickets in the T20 series while a bowler marked out as an X-Factor in rookie pacer Prasidh Krishna is also an option. Krishna enjoyed a good Vijay Hazare Trophy campaign for Karnataka, claiming 14 wickets in seven matches at an average of 24.5.

Spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Washington Sundar could be preferred over Krunal Pandya and Kuldeep Yadav. But the senior Pandya brother could be in line for his ODI debut should India want a like-for-like replacement in the XI for Ravindra Jadeja.

On the other hand, England would also be keen to end the tour on a high after suffering defeats in the Tests (1-3) and the T20 series (2-3). And for it to happen, skipper Eoin Morgan’s role with the bat will be vital.

The likes of Jos Buttler and Jason Roy will have to fire in unison and all-rounder Ben Stokes will have to step up with both the bat and ball.

England pacer Mark Wood troubled the Indian batters with his pace and in the absence of an injured Jofra Archer, he would have to shoulder greater responsibility along with Chris Jordan and the young Sam Curran.

The spin duo of Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid will hold the key if the pitches aid turn and it remains to be seen whether they have any new tricks to change the dynamics. Additionally, Ali can perform the role of a pinch-hitter, if needed.

All the games at MCA Stadium, Gahunje will be played in front of empty stands as India battles a fresh surge in Covid-19 infections.


India: Virat Kohli (Captain), Rohit Sharma (vice-captain), Shikhar Dhawan, Shubman Gill, Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav, Hardik Pandya, Rishabh Pant (wicket-keeper), KL Rahul (wicket-keeper), Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Krunal Pandya, Washington Sundar, T Natarajan, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Siraj, Prasidh Krishna, Shardul Thakur.

England: Eoin Morgan (Captain), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Sam Billings, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Tom Curran, Liam Livingstone, Matt Parkinson, Adil Rashid, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, Reece Topley, Mark Wood. Covers: Jake Ball, Chris Jordan, Dawid Malan.

Match starts at 1.30pm IST and will be live on the Star Sports network.

(With PTI inputs)