Nobody took Indias loss of the two-match Twenty20 International (T20I) series to Australia all that seriously as the Indian selectors and the team management have been experimenting with the playing 11 in every game whatever be the format, keeping the World Cup in view.
Now India are into their last set of One-Day Internationals (ODI) before going to the World Cup this summer. The selectors, captain Virat Kohli and coach RaviShastri should have finalised the squad by now. What is it they are looking for in the five matches on Indian pitches that they could not find on Australian and New Zealand pitches, which are somewhat closer to the pitches in England?
Even after winning the first ODI by six wickets in Hyderabad on Saturday, there is no clarity on the positions selectors are looking for. They seem to be still in search of a third opener, a reserve wicket-keeper and a fourth fast bowler.
Till the team returned from the antipodes, it was felt both Ambati Rayudu and Dinesh Karthik have done enough to seal their places. Now we are told they are looking at that perennial talent Lokesh Rahul as third opener or to bat at No. 4, depending on the form of Shikhar Dhawan.
That means putting pressure on Rayudu. Another amazing talent Rishabh Pant is being looked at a possible understudy for Mahendra Singh Dhoni, more for his flamboyant batting. That will see Dinesh Karthik out, a bit unfairly, having been a certainty for over a year to fulfill the role of a finisher.
Curiously, both Pant and Rahul did not figure in the eleven in Hyderabad and Karthik is not there in the squad. The idea was to try out Pant and even as an X-factor by making him open the innings like Adam Gilchrist, just because Shane Warne suggested so.
As for the fourth pacer, selectors or the captain do not appear to be all that happy with the bowlers tried out so far. For quite some time it was thought Rajasthan’s Khaleel Ahmed is the ideal fourth fast bowler, being left-arm, but he is off the radar because of his inconsistency. He looked really good when he looked good and pathetic when he was all over the place.
If Hardik Pandya is fully fit, Vijay Shankar could get in for his bits-and-pieces utility as a useful seamer on English pitches. But selectors would be tempted to take Ravindra Jadeja for his experience and keeping one end tight with his nagging length and for his brilliant fielding. They will still have to take a genuine pacer.
As things stand, there are five batsmen — Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Dhawan, Rayudu and Rahul plus Dhoni, Jadhav, Pant, Pandya and Shankar — three pacers and two spinners. If they want Jadeja or an additional pacer in, someone from the squad for the last three ODIs will have to make way.
All the talk of performances in the Indian Premier League (IPL) can still tilt fortunes of Karthik is now put to rest by Kohli who said a good or bad Twenty20 season is not going to affect the chances of a player. That means Pant has to come good in the series against Australia to pip the experienced Karthik.
Both Rahul and Pant have to play the second game at Ranchi to know how good they are and where will they fit in. Only one can open and the other will have to bat at No 4, unless Kohli decides to drop down a slot lower to push one of the contenders up.
One good thing emerging from the last nine ODIs is the form of Dhoni. No one is talking about his utility to the side any longer after his four consecutive 50s against Australia and winning two matches in the company of Kedar Jadhav, the first one at Melbourne Cricket Ground before the Hyderabad night. In both the games, the two were involved in high hundred-run partnerships.
People are still unable to figure out the value of Jadhav. He is a street-smart cricketer, finding gaps in the field to place his shots. He imparts both power and timing, though he gives the impression that he only hits strong. And he is a partnership breaker as a bowler.
As for Dhoni, Jadhav put it so well. Playing alongside Dhoni anybody can be a match-winner, that’s how he nurses a partner.
The bowlers are all performing at their best and if their form continues and should peak by the time the World Cup gets underway.
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist and the views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])