The Road to World Cup: India

As ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 looms, the ODI series against Australia is India’s last opportunity to give final touches to their World Cup preparations. For team India, everything is in order, almost. By the time this series is done and dusted, India’s squad and plans for the World Cup will be crystal clear as Virat Kohli has formally stated that IPL form will have no bearing on World Cup selection.

The Road to World Cup: India The Road to World Cup: India Source : Press

The frequency of matches between India and Australia in the recent years takes us back to the 90s and noughties where we used to meet Pakistan, and later Sri Lanka in perpetual bilateral contests most of which have slowly erased from the memory (bring back the tri-series and cups), that opposition players like Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Akhtar, Sanath Jayasuriya and Muttiah Muralitharan had become household names in India.

India is sitting just below England, not quite the same England against which Tim Southee famously took a 7-for followed by New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum blasting his side to victory inside 13 overs smacking 77 off 25 which included 8 sixes. This is the ‘New England' which now holds the record for the highest ever total in an ODIthe famous pasting of the rookie Aussie bowlers posting 482 at the Trent Bridge. Australia are ranked sixth, and they have not won a single ODI series in more than two years. They defeated both South Africa and India once in the ODIs in their forgettable home summer last year and will take confidence from the Test Series win against Sri Lanka and the T20 series win against India last week.

Having said that, this series is just as important for India as it is for Australia with the World Cup only a couple of months away. For India, from the outside, everything looks perfect. Beating Australia down under in both Test and ODI series was a historic achievement for Virat Kohli's men. But if you look closely, there are a few holes that still need to be plugged. MS Dhoni's three back to back fifties against Australia has put aside any doubt regarding his fitness and form leading up to the World Cup. In the ODI series, he can work improve on the only caveat in his batting-his slow start and rotation of strike. He is still the quickest between the wickets but as his reflexes have slowed down with age, opposition spinners have found a way to restrict his run-scoring by not letting him get away with easy singles.

The top three of Rohit, Dhawan and Kohli pick themselves. They have been the most consistent top order in white ball cricket for a good couple of years now. With Dhoni certain to take the gloves and bat at 5 and Hardik Pandya has booked the number 7 for himself with his in-form return with both bat and ball against New Zealand in the away series last month. Jaspreet Bumrah and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar form the best fast bowling pair in the white ball cricket and the same goes for Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzavendra Chahal as the two spinners in the same format.

After the Khaleel Ahmed experiment has failed, it is Mohammad Shami who has stepped up and carried his red ball form in white ball cricket. Last month against New Zealand, Shami became India's fastest bowler to reach 100 wickets in just 56 matches and he was also the leading wicket-taker for India in ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 held in Australia where he took 17 wickets in just 6 matches. It is certain that Shami will be India's third seamer for the World Cup. With Hardik Pandya also a certainty in the playing XI, India won't look for another fast bowling option but rather test the third spinner in Jadeja and all-rounder Shankar as back-up for Hardik.

The chinks in India's armory lie in the middle order. The position in question is 4 and 6. Position 4 is a cut-throat competition between Rayudu who is in front of the race and KL Rahul who struck form against Australia in the T20i series. Rahul is also the designated back-up opener. If Rayudu fails to score against Australia in the home series, then Rahul will be in contention for the spot. Dinesh Karthik did well in Australia at 6 as the finisher but the dashing Delhi wicket-keeper batsman Rishabh Pant has overtaken him as the preferred back-up to MS Dhoni. What also goes in favor of Pant is when he is at his best, he is the most destructive Indian batsman a la Jos Buttler or a Glenn Maxwell, someone who can come in and just bash the leather from ball one. Recently, India has been guilty of being 20-30 runs short of the par score but their bowlers, specially Bumrah and Kuldeep being the best in the business have made up for it with their exceptional array of skills and control. 

Incumbent is Kedar Jadhav at 6 who has earned faith and confidence of the selectors with his innovative and street smart batting in the middle of a pressure-cooker chase. Coupled with his unusual spin bowling that frustrates the batsmen and forces them to give away their wicket, and his domestic and IPL experience what he brings to this Indian team is exactly what India was looking for after Suresh Raina's form faded away. The only caveat is that Jadhav's fielding is nowhere near as good as Raina's, who is India's one of the best all-round fielders, in-fact it's so bad that Jadhav is a liability in the field and any drop in performance will surely raise eye-brows and Pant will become a part of the conversation.

Vijay Shankar has done enough to ensure that he is the backup all-rounder to Hardik Pandya. Shankar is more of a batsman but he has impressed with his bowling so far. Still, it is nowhere as dependable as Hardik who more often than not guarantees 7-8 overs and on a good day completes his quota. If India wants to strengthen their lower order batting, Shankar is going to be the go-to man at the expense of a more reliable fifth bowler. Ravindra Jadeja's is India's best fielder and also the third spinner and another genuine all-round option. His batting has picked up recently, especially in the longest format. If India wants to strengthen their lower order batting, Jadeja is the first name that comes to mind. At 8, he is going to act as the finisher as well as a crisis man.

India captain Virat Kohli, coach Ravi Shastri and the selectors, staff and management have assembled a fine team which has a mix of both experience and youth. Apart from England, India is certain to make the semi-finals of the ICC World Cup 2019 to be held in England starting from 30th May and is touted to be one of the front-runners to bag the trophy for the third time. Anything less than the semi-finals will be an under-achievement for Virat Kohli's men who are ready to give it everything to the final touches of their World Cup preparations.

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