As a gust of sea breeze wafted across the Greenfield Stadium, bringing fleeting relief from the sweltering afternoon heat, Team India’s bus lumbered into the parking space of the venue, unifying the scattered crowd that broke into a familiar frenzy.
The players waved back, flicked a thumbs-up and granted a few quick photographs. Just half an hour ago, South Africa’s players had left the arena, drained and drowsy, beads of sweat dripping from their brows, after a three-hour practice session from 1pm to 4pm, when the sun was at its most blistering.
The pair of teams could be more familiar than most others. In the space of 10 months, this is the third series between them; the two others have been nail-bitingly thrilling. Some of them are franchise teammates in the Indian Premier League, many of them are familiar rivals, some of them friends and most of them have been playing against each other repeatedly this year. Such has been the frequency of their encounters that they could measure each other’s success or progress, gauge their strengths and weaknesses, introspect and retrospect through the eyes of these three series, like a timeline in pursuit of World Cup glory.
For instance, the last time they duelled, as recently as June, India were in the middle of a frenetic experimenting spree. There were riddles, puzzles and dilemmas. Players were still being auditioned, tactics were yet to be set in stone, team combinations and permutations yet to be chiselled out, the team was just being shaped up, and there was a brooding sense of uncertainty. Ishan Kishan and Ruturaj Gaikwad opened in that series; Shreyas Iyer batted at No 3; even Rishabh Pant was tried as an opener.
Four months and several experiments later — after India toured England, West Indies, Zimbabwe, hosted Australia, West Indies and Sri Lanka, dropped by in Dubai for the Asia Cup — they have reached clarity on their best eleven, polished their strategies and formulas, sharpened their weapons, have picked their World Cup squad and are seemingly World Cup-ready.
The concerns have been nipped. The top three have embraced the aggression-at-all-times philosophy; Virat Kohli has rediscovered his form, his T20 game marked by unbridled freedom; Suryakumar Yadav has blossomed into the team’s talisman; Hardik Pandya has roared back from his injuries and slain doubts on his all-round utility; Dinesh Karthik has grown into a reliable finisher; Axar Patel has proved that he is an able replacement for the injured Ravindra Jadeja; Yuzvendra Chahal has begun to rekindle his craftiness; the back-from-injury Jasprit Bumrah and Harshal Patel are steadily regathering their rhythm and sharpness.
Finalising the details
The context of this series, the last stop before the World Cup next month, is utterly different to the previous time these teams met, or for that matter any they have played this year. The series could be more about applying the last coat of oil, making the last odd tweak and tinkering, trialling Plans C and D, retesting the efficiency of the machine for one last time, and rechecking the emergency measures. “Just a few days for the World Cup, we are more or less prepared, as we have played a lot of games. Most of the areas are fine, but we would look to keep improving and get valuable game time,” said India batting coach Vikram Rathour.
The focus, thus, would be on micro rather than macro issues. Consequently, the series could be, apart from solving the death over woes that is not so much of a calamity as a concern, more about the substitutes and standbys, handing out matches to them so that they are in match-groove and game-ready whenever summoned for match duties. Maybe, an injury to someone on the morning of a match, or a sudden loss of form to a frontline player, or in case of a tactical manoeuvre against a specific team or a set of batsmen.
A classic case is Ravichandran Ashwin. Though he could be the third-choice spinner, he is an important member of the squad. More so as Chahal has been prone to fluctuations in form; Axar is untested in Australian conditions, though the extra bounce should hypothetically benefit him, and India could run into left-hander-heavy adversaries, though Ashwin has been reluctant with off-breaks in T20s.
So could be the case with Pant. Though Karthik has been on an ascendant note, the team management would want Pant to reclaim his fluency in a format that he has bizarrely not cracked. A Pant with runs under the belt is reassuring; he could be unleashed in any game the team wants to, especially in Australia where he relishes batting. Besides, there have been times in the past when Karthik has blinked in crunch games. Pant, on the contrary, loves the big stage and big games. It is when he channelises the quintessential Pant.
Like Ashwin and Pant, left-arm seamer Arshdeep Singh too could get an extended look-in. Besides the different angles he probes, a reason teams world over have utilised left-arm seamers, his expertise at the death glows into relevance as both Bumrah and Patel have been erratic upon their return from layoff. The latter two, indeed, are the chief death-overs purveyors, but Arshdeep presents not just an option but viable competition too, especially for Patel. Then come the standbys.
One of them, Shreyas Iyer, has already replaced the injured Deepak Hooda. Given the propensity of Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul to pick up injuries, Iyer coming into the equation is not improbable. India needn’t look beyond their previous trip to Australia to realise the worth of having their standbys in groove. By the last Test in Brisbane, half the first-choice squad was injured and India were forced to harness their reserve strength. The injury toll in the Asia Cup, especially for Pakistan, too was heavy.
The backdrop, thus, hints at more experiments to the playing eleven. Only that the experiments would be of a different hue than when the teams met last time.
The last time they met, it was about the broader canvas. For both teams. South Africa were transitioning and they ended up finding several solutions to their problems, like the revival of David Miller and Heinrich Klassen, and the bristle of Lungi Ngidi. This time, it could be about applying the finishing touches to the near-finished portrait. “We will be looking to fill whatever gaps there are within the team, we have guys who have been playing a lot of cricket, so we will be trying to manage their intensity.
And we have got guys who need some cricket under their belts, and we will be looking to give them an opportunity,” captain Temba Bavuma said. Any member of the Indian team could just borrow the words and sound just as relevant ahead of the last stop before the flight to Australia.