From mid-December starts the month of Margazhi, when the air turns crisper and the sun sheds its intolerance in the city, when the riffs of Carnatic maestros flit through the streets of Mylapore and T Nagar, and when the city slumps into a festive mood. But the city has already begun the frantic scramble for the harvest festival, Pongal, exactly a month from hereon.
The multiplexes have duly hung glistening billboards intimating ‘Pongal releases’-among them, the much-awaited Rajinikanth-starrer Darbar bossing the rest. Textile shops have put up gaudy banners with overlarge fonts, announcing ‘Pongal Sale’.
In the month of Margazhi, the mood of Pongal is inescapable.
In as much as the way, the three-match ODI series that begins on Sunday between India and West Indies is overshadowed by two seemingly unrelated events, but correlated in the larger scheme. First, and imminently, the IPL auction scheduled on December 19 in Kolkata and then, more pertinently, the T20 World Cup which’s (only) ten months away in Australia.
An ODI series it might be, but the thoughts have already begun veering towards the shortest format.
The underlying currents are so powerful that it risks flooding the central theme, especially when it is shaky to start with.
For, India-West Indies match-ups have long lost its charm and allure. These days, it ceases to thrill, other than if you’re a cricket sadist, deriving pleasure from India trampling the once superpowers of the game. So one-sided has been India’s supremacy-India have won 21 of the last 26 encounters this decade-their meetings are bereft of context (or competence) unless it’s in the World Cup.
In that sense, the auction contextualises the series, at least the first two games. So much so that every limited over-game, even the 50-over versions hereafter, would acquire the hue of an audition for the World Cup, more so with Virat Kohli’s obsession of winning an ICC Trophy.
The priorities – though it’s still too early – manifest in some of the selections. Like giving Shivam Dube an extended run to stock India’s medium-pace-bowling all-rounder department. Had the World Cup not been looming, and if it weren’t in Australia, it’s doubtful that the Mumbai youngster could have been considered, let alone poised for a longer run. Apart from the oddball Kedar Jadhav, everyone could push their case for the World Cup. Just to add intrigue, Virat Kohli had blared that “all but one spot is sealed in the World Cup squad.”
A mind-blowing spell or mind-boggling knock could hook eyeballs. The age-old truism remains true-closer to the event, the bigger the impact.
Such performances wouldn’t escape the ravenous eyes of the IPL scouts, CEOs, support staff. Their prices could double, the worth magnified and the bargaining more frantic. So even if some players admit that they’re not swayed or distracted by the auction, subconsciously (or secretly), they would be less human if they claim they’re utterly immune to what’s happening on the auction table or whether they are not thinking about getting picked for the T20 World Cup.
Aside: There’s the usual derision that West Indies players are only always motivated by the hefty paycheques they could command from a clutch of good T20-esque performances.
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Therefore, the proximity of the two events, separated by 10 months, could put the players in a genuine dilemma. Not for the big fishes like Rohit Sharma or Virat Kohli, or to a lesser extent Kieron Pollard and Shai Hope. But for those that aren’t assured of permanence, or have been largely in the fringes, the ODIs could chart the route to the T20 World Cup.
Manish Pandey could be an interesting case study. He turned 30 in September-he was barely 20 when he became the first Indian centurion in the IPL-yet for all his glittering potential, his ledger reads 23 ODIs and 32 T20Is. For someone like him, establishing in the ODI side would be an incentive but the grand-prize remains the T20 World Cup spot, more so after narrowly missing out on the ODI World Cup. Same arguably with someone like Shreyas Iyer or Mayank Agarwal, summoned as the injured Shikhar Dhawan’s cover.
Or even among the spin trio of Ravindra Jadeja, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav.
So, prevalent in the series would be an innate urge to illustrate their T20 mettle. It would make for an engrossing watch -the need vs desire tussle, reality vs dream bout. For all one knows, they could approach the ODIs with a T20 psyche. In a drivable half-volley down to long-on, they might sniff a chance to clear the ropes. In a defendable back-of-length ball, they might plot a bottom-handed whip. A dab to the third man might not suffice, instead, they might uppercut or late cut it. Fielders prowling beside the ropes, no problem. The length ball could be heaved over mid-wicket rather than working it on the leg-side. Risk lurking, they would embrace it. The series, intriguingly, could turn out to be an exhibition of bit hitting.
Similarly, the bowlers could be tempted to showcase all their arcanery, the yorkers and cutters, the knuckleballs and slower balls, the flippers and wrong’uns. The fielders will be tempted to have a dart at the stumps, even if they know the batsmen are ambling for a single and they would be comfortably home. There could be, to use one of Kohli’s favourite catchwords, more intent. More bustle, desire, and ambition.
Even the teams could not be blamed for thinking too far ahead. There are precedents of the team management taking a relatively insignificant series as a preparatory ground. Remember India pressing for a green-top surface in Kolkata for a Test against Sri Lanka (and it nearly back-fired) before the series to South Africa in 2018. Or more recently, Kohli was aghast when Australia stopped over for a brief limited-overs series that included two T20Is just before ODI World Cup.
Kohli was worried about bad habits slipping into the players, as there was a profusion of T20s, including the IPL, in the build-up to the World Cup. “All the people who are going to be part of the World Cup squad, they have to make sure that their games don’t go too much away from the one-day mould of things. That means we will have to be very wary of the bad habits that might creep in during the IPL. That will take a consistent effort from all the players during the IPL to keep a check on that,” he had said.
It could not have been more diametrically inverse now, though the team management wouldn’t be too bothered about “bad habits” sneaking into a player’s technique or mindset. The World Cup, after all is 10 months away, though the mood has kicked in. The IPL auction is an add-on. So just like the inescapable mood of Pongal in the month of Margazhi, is a pulsating T20 vibe to the 50-over series.