After recording a historic Test series win against Australia earlier this month, India captain Virat Kohli was quick to declare that it was a bigger career achievement for him than winning the World Cup in 2011. “When we won the 2011 World Cup, I was the youngest member of the side. Saw everyone emotional there, but I didn’t feel it then. Here, after coming three times, this win means something else,” he had said. The coach Ravi Shastri went a step further and said it was even bigger than the 1983 World Cup win.
Perhaps, for the moment, it might be so for the Indian camp, who, in Shastri’s own words, had been preparing to win a series Down Under for 12 months. But in the world of cricket, the targets continue to alter, and the focus of Kohli & Co. has shifted towards winning the World Cup once again, now that the side has registered a Test series win in Australia.
Immediately after the Test series concluded, the star bowler Jasprit Bumrah was rested from the ODI squad, to keep a check on his workload prior to the World Cup. The BCCI also announced the dates for the 5-match ODI series against Australia at home in February, which means the men in blue will play 13 ODIs, before the start of the World Cup in May.
“The fact we have not many games left before the World Cup and hence we want to play the side that more or less will feature in the World Cup. The exceptional case of Jasprit Bumrah being rested is purely because of the workload in the Test series. But apart from that I don’t think combination-wise we are going to look to tinker too much,” skipper Virat Kohli said at the press conference in Sydney prior to the first ODI against Australia.
As the three-match ODI series kicks off Saturday, it will all be about testing the squad’s strengths and weaknesses with an eye on the big tournament. The biggest conundrum for Kohli’s side would be to decide on a fixed middle-order, and this is where lies the opportunity for Ambati Rayudu, Dinesh Karthik, Kedar Jadhav, and MS Dhoni to cement their places. The last time India played ODIs in Australia in 2016, the middle order failed to contribute. Despite Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli topping the batting charts with 441 and 381 runs in five matches, respectively, India lost the series 4-1. This time around, it is one area which the selectors and the coaching staff will be eager to address.
After a successful Asia Cup stint in September 2017, followed by another good showing against West Indies, Rayudu has all but confirmed his stake for the coveted no. 4 position in the batting line-up. In last 11 ODIs, the right-handed batsman has scored 392 runs at an average of 56, including a hundred and three fifties. But to close conversations for any other options, the 33-year-old will look to put on a good show in Sydney and the rest of the series.
Between Jadhav and Karthik, Kohli is likely to pick the former in Sydney. Jadhav has been a tried and tested part-time bowler amid India’s ranks and on a pitch that is known to help spinners, he could be a surprise asset in the arsenal.
MS Dhoni has received much criticism for his deteriorating form in the limited overs cricket. In 2018, the former captain managed to score only 275 runs in 20 ODIs at an average of 25 without a half century. Apart from his inability to get runs on the board, the 37-year-old also faced criticism for his low striker of 71.42 last year. But despite the question marks, he has been picked over Rishabh Pant, who fired on all cylinders in the Test series, and has been backed by skipper Kohli and his deputy Rohit Sharma to make an impact in Sydney.
Bumrah, Pandya absent in bowling line-up
Hardik Pandya will miss out from the 1st ODI, and possibly the entire series, thanks to the furore they kicked up with their comments in a popular TV show. India will have to make changes to their plans of including him as an allrounder in the side. The right-armer has the ability to fire quick runs coming down late in the order and can also take wickets in the middle overs with the ball. In his absence, Kohli has named Ravindra Jadeja as his ideal replacement in the playing XI and the left-armer will be eager to grab the opportunity to put his name in the hat for World Cup selection.
In Bumrah’s absence, India are likely to go with a five-pronged attack, comprising of seamers Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Khaleel Ahmed and spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Jadeja. Shami, Bhuvneshwar and Khaleel were impressive in the Asia Cup and in the limited-overs series against Windies, and India would hope the trio can deliver overseas as well.
Kuldeep and Yuzvendra Chahal were the reasons for India’s success in South Africa in the shorter format, but with Jadeja’s ability to bat, Chahal is likely to be on the bench in Sydney.
India’s record in the 50-over cricket in Australia is quite poor. Apart from the series wins in the 1985 World Championship and 2008 Commonwealth Bank Series wins, India have never won a series. Out of 48 matches in the country, the men in blue have lost 35. But despite the stats, India appear to be the favourites with Australia struggling with the bat in the absence of David Warner and Steve Smith, who are still serving 12-month bans from international cricket for ball tampering.
Australian skipper Aaron Finch, who struggled in the longest format, will open the batting along with Alex Carey, who has not yet been tested in ODIs at the position. Peter Handscomb, Usman Khawaja, Glenn Maxwell, Shaun Marsh, and Marcus Stoinis will form the middle order. Handscomb, Khawaja and Marsh, too, failed to shine with the bat in Test series, while Maxwell has been criticised off late for his inconsistency.
But unfortunately for the home fans, their batting woes will not be the only worry in the ODI series. The selectors have dropped Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood from the squad, and brought back veteran Peter Siddle who will be making a start in Sydney. The 34-year-old seamer has not played an ODI since 2010, and under his leadership, the Aussie attack appear to be a little lack-lustrous. If that was not all, spinner Adam Zampa has also been left out from the playing XI.