Mom, mom, that’s Kumaaar mom. The guy with the half-sleeves.” “Oh mommm that’s Shami, the one who’s bowling with the full-sleeves. I think Shaarma should play instead of him.”
He wouldn’t have been older than nine. Red-haired, as tall as a basic bar-stool, and stood atop one of the wooden benches located next to the nets at the SCG. And here he was listing out the Indian squad to his doting mother and making impromptu selectorial calls subsequently. And his freckled face lit up, each time he craned his neck and recognized an Indian cricketer going through his routines. It made his day and a put a smile on his mother’s face.
Almost serendipitously, Shami decided to take a break from bowling, and was replaced by Sharma, much to the little cricket nuffy’s (Australian for obsessive fan) delight.
At the far end of the practice area, stood Vikram Rathour, one of the two national selectors on tour, in deep discussion initially with team director Ravi Shastri and then coach Duncan Fletcher. How he and the rest of the team management would have loved to have the young fan’s clarity regarding their own team’s composition. How they would love to have already identified their best XI in the build-up to the World Cup.
India landed in Australia on November 22, and they’ve now gone 64 days without getting a taste of that winning feeling. If anything, they’ve hardly even got a whiff so far. They have a week now to fix that drought, starting with their second tri-series clash against the hosts in Sydney on Australia Day. It will many ways be a match-up between two teams on either side of the spectrum, in terms of stability.
On one side, we have an Australian team, whose coach Darren Lehmann has already insisted on knowing the identity of the 11 men who he thinks will hold the key for his team’s chances in the World Cup. While on the other we have MS Dhoni, who while castigating suggestions that his team was still in an experimental stage still seems unsure of a lot of crucial spots in his setup.
On Sunday, just like was the case two days earlier, Ishant ran in and bowled more than every other Indian pacer on view. India have been waiting on their lanky spearhead’s return to full fitness ever since he broke down after the third Test at the MCG almost a month ago.
And he had extended sessions bowling to Dhoni from both over and around the wicket, setting metaphorical fields and trying to set his captain up. The duo also spent time strategizing the around-the-wicket angle to a right-hander, keeping in mind the benefits of blocking one end up in the death overs. But does the return of Ishant really enhance India’s bowling arsenal for an ODI drastically?
Yadav, Kumar or Shami?
For the record, the world champion’s senior-most pacer only appeared in five out of the 24 ODIs India played last year. He took six wickets in those at 37.33 and went at 6.05 an over. So is Ishant even the spearhead of this ODI attack? And it will be interesting to see which one of Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar makes way for him, especially considering all three have not gone too badly in the two matches so far. And where will it leave Stuart Binny, who impressed with bat and took the new-ball at the Gabba?
At the other end of the spectrum, Australia are awaiting Mitchell Johnson to regain his place in the team, even though he’s likely to be ready only for the final in Perth next Sunday. Though in his absence the World Cup hosts have already recognized the look of the rest of their pace attack with Mitchell Starc already having snared over 11 wickets, and the likes of James Faulkner and Pat Cummins coming into their own. At the SCG, they welcome back Josh Hazlewood, whose metronomic precision troubled the Indian batsmen during the Tests. Despite having experimented a bit with their bowling options, in the form of Gurinder Sandhu and Moises Henriques, Australia have won all three games en route to making next week’s finale.
It’s not just the look of the Indian pace attack that needs firming up. They still seem unsure about who their lead spinner still is. R Ashwin was out-bowled by Axar Patel in the opening game at the MCG and ‘rested’ for the second.
With Ravindra Jadeja said to be available for selection-despite his travails in terms of throwing the ball in the outfield-Ashwin could well be demoted further. But nobody bowled more in the nets on Sunday than the Tamil Nadu off-spinner— who wheeled away for close to two hours.
Meanwhile, skipper George Bailey announced that left-arm spinner Xavier Doherty was set to get a game. Doherty has been Australia’s premier ODI spinner for a while now, and he gets left out only in conditions where his team want an additional pace-bowling option.
The opening puzzle
Then there is the everlasting conundrum regarding the opening slots in the Indian line-up. With Rohit Sharma still not having recovered from his sore hamstring, Shikhar Dhawan will get another chance, maybe the ultimate one, to show that he still remains a force in the 50-over game, and that he can face a full-ball without getting out to it.
He will walk out alongside Ajinkya Rahane, who after an impressive Test series has thrown his wicket away after healthy starts in the ODIs. But questions still remain about what happens of Dhawan once Rohit is steady on his feet again.
On the other hand, Australia’s regular ODI opening pair will be reunited after a brief interval with David Warner back in action on Australia Day, with a free license to entertain on the biggest public holiday Down Under.
“What’s the point looking to win games where you are pushing an individual who has quite a significant niggle?” is how Dhoni described his team’s quandary. But a failure to win at the SCG will more or less end India’s campaign in the tri-series, and give them one less match in terms of preparation for their World Cup defence. Getting close to finalizing their best XI will be as crucial an outcome as they enter the final week of the second phase of their Australian sojourn. If only it was as easy as standing on top of a bench and calling out names.
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