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The One-Day International series against Australia, starting in Hyderabad on Saturday (March 1), will be India’s third 50-over engagement in a calendar year that has just slipped into the third month. It’s not that much of a surprise, really, given that this is the year of the ICC Cricket World Cup, the showpiece event of the cricketing landscape, never mind the dwindling profile of the one-day format. This particular five-match showdown assumes added significance largely because it is also India’s last international assignment before the World Cup, which runs between May 30 and July 14 in England and Wales. The clamour for a positive scoreline will be as cacophonous as ever from a fan-base for which nothing other than victory will do, especially in light of the 0-2 defeat in the preceding Twenty20 Internationals. But, while the core group will not disassociate itself from the need for ticks in the ‘win’ column, most of its energies will be trained on buttoning down the one or two places in the 15-man squad that are up for discussion, if not debate.
Plenty of progress seemed to have been made in the immediacy of India’s 2-1 win in Australia in January, but subsequent developments have necessitated a rethink. The success of Vijay Shankar with the bat, and the additional medium-paced option that he provides, seems to appeal more to the think-tank than what Ravindra Jadeja offers -- measured if not always threatening left-arm spin, the ability to tonk the ball, and brilliance in the field that can, and has, changed the destination of matches. Vijay’s emergence as a potential key option stems also from continued concerns over the state of the lower back of Hardik Pandya. When he is injury- and suspension-free, the younger of the Pandya brothers is a shoo-in for white-ball cricket. However, while his suspension in the wake of his well-documented appearance in Koffee With Karan has been provisionally lifted, he has swapped the cricket park for the rehab table after a recurrence of the lower-back soreness that forced him to abandon India’s Asia Cup campaign prematurely in the UAE in September. It took Pandya nearly three months to recover from that injury and return to competitive cricket, in the Ranji Trophy for Baroda in mid-December. He did enough with bat and ball to indicate that he had both regained full fitness and lost none of his cutting edge. Subsequently flown out to join the red-ball team ahead of the Boxing Day Test, Pandya played in neither the Melbourne nor the Sydney games.
He was suspended and sent back home ahead of the ODI series, alongside KL Rahul, in the aftermath of the Koffee With Karan fiasco, only to be flown out to New Zealand midway through the ODI series when the suspension was overturned. It’s debatable if all this toing and froing across time-zones in a short span of time impacted his back adversely, but it must be worrisome that Pandya has pulled up short again after just six international appearances since his return from injury. He provides not just balance as an all-rounder, but also genuine firepower with the bat and a happy knack of picking up wickets with his fast-medium. India will walk the extra mile in trying to accommodate him in the World Cup 15, for perfectly understandable reasons. But for them to take that punt, they must be convinced that physically, he will last the rigours of nine – at the very least – 50-over matches in a little over a month. Pandya’s immediate unavailability has facilitated Jadeja’s return to the ODI plans, if only temporarily. With a refreshed Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal the preferred weapons of destruction, Jadeja is at best a back-up choice for now. There is no way he can displace the wrist-spinners from the World Cup squad; at best, he can supplement them, and that only if a conscious decision is made to carry a third specialist spinner to the United Kingdom.
Rahul is another individual with plenty to gain over the next fortnight. Pushed down and up the order and, at one stage, out of the reckoning, the Karnataka stylist has wended his way back into contention with successive blistering efforts in the T20Is. That he played both the T20Is while first-choice limited-overs openers Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan played only one game each must be construed as the surest indication that the think-tank is still weighing up the need for a third opener at the World Cup. Should Rahul continue his sensational ball-striking, and translate lovely cameos into more substantial edifices, he will most likely settle the debate and comprehensively prove that he has put the harrowing last few months emphatically behind him. The one point of great intrigue will be just how much rope India are willing to give Rishabh Pant. The feisty youngster from Delhi has all the trappings of the consummate ball-basher in the shorter formats, but during his brief run with the national team, he has been less hit and more miss. His left-handedness in the middle-order will be a tempting attraction in a squad singularly bereft of that option beyond Dhawan, but that alone can’t be the decisive factor.
While Pant has courted success in Test cricket, as evidenced by centuries in both England and Australion his first tour to both countries, his ODI numbers – as well as his almost bull-headed, dare-without-a-care approach – leave room for loads of skepticism. Both MSK Prasad, the chief selector, and skipper Virat Kohli have confirmed that he will get the game-time that could allow him to blossom into his role. Pant must justify the faith reposed in him and embrace hitherto elusive consistency if he is to win the nod ahead of Dinesh Karthik, who has every reason to feel hard done by at being omitted from the squad for these five games. India’s quest for the fourth specialist pace-bowling choice, behind Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami, continues with various protagonists blowing more cold than hot. Khaleel Ahmed’s left-arm variety has been negated somewhat by his waywardness in T20Is, though in the ongoing Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy inter-state T20 tournament, he has picked up 12 wickets in his last four bowls for Rajasthan.
Neither Umesh Yadav nor Siddharth Kaul particularly caught the eye during the two T20s against Australia, though the latter might yet be on display during either or both of the first two ODIs. Of course, a fourth seamer might be considered superfluous if both Pandya and Vijay make the final cut. These five matches against Australia will require a delicate balancing act – between the immediate objective of winning the series, and nailing down the personnel that will be tasked with emulating the Classes of 1983 and 2011. In the pursuit of answers and combinations, India can’t afford to sell themselves short; at the same time, the hunt for a series win must not come at the cost of trial and error. All told, present tense for future perfect won’t be a bad trade-off at all.