Testing times for India ODI side
"India should play Tests in colours, and they'll start winning."
"Give Virat Kohli a white ball, and he will start getting those cover-drives right."
"India will win the ODIs, and those three-day defeats will be forgotten."
Except, will India?
The above sentiments, or similar such, expressed by Indian fans are a sign of resignation, and a statement of fact that if India do well in ODIs, the Tests debacle will be forgotten. It is, however, not as straightforward. India's ODI form outside Asia and the West Indies - similar slow pitches as back home - has been awful except for the Champions Trophy win last year. Even counting those five wins, India have won eight and lost 13 of their ODIs in England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand since the last World Cup.
This includes tours of South Africa and New Zealand where their Test side actually looked better than the ODI one, which didn't win a single game. Especially in South Africa, where you needed to do more than just the put the ball there, India looked hopeless. Their batting depth was exposed in both South Africa and New Zealand, something they haven't yet addressed. India have these five ODIs and the tri-series in Australia to sort out a combination before their World Cup defence. Conditions in ODIs in India will be so different they may as well not play them.
The two biggest questions India need to ask themselves are, if Rohit Sharma is still a viable ODI opener, and if Suresh Raina is the right man in the lower-middle order. The bowling, India can never figure out so far in advance. It has to be about whatever works on the day.
The opening act India will need to sort out. It might sound strange to even doubt an opener who is only one of the three double-centurions in the game, but Rohit is a naturalised opener, and he has been having a tough time of it of late. It was just before the Champions Trophy last year that he moved to the top of the order. His first innings there was an 83, followed by two half-centuries in the Champions Trophy. An unbeaten 141 and that double-century in the high-scoring ODI series at home seemed to have bedded him into that role as an opener.
However, the tours of South Africa and New Zealand raised question marks. He scored 182 in seven innings, including a chancy 79 in Hamilton, but his strike rate was a big problem. He begins slowly, faces a lot of dots, which puts pressure on himself and the rest. His technique is slightly too loose, in theory, for an opener. If he gets out after getting in, he almost always ends up owing the team a few balls. This will be an important series both for Rohit and the experiment. India haven't quite hedged their bets there. If Rohit fails again, it leaves the team in trouble close to the World Cup, and Rohit with another new role in the team.
Raina, much like Rohit the opener, is a valuable player in Asia. On tougher pitches he becomes a lesser player. His technique comes under scrutiny, and his part-time offspin becomes less effective. He still brings a lot of energy to the side, but he needs runs in tough conditions to justify being one of the top six batsmen - and India can play only six because the new fielding restrictions demand five proper bowlers. He will be under pressure because he was dropped after the New Zealand tour, and came back only as a captain in Bangladesh because all other experienced players were resting. That comeback has quietly continued, but will come under fire if Raina can't score runs here.
The bowling as usual will remain a bit of a hit and miss. India went to South Africa with Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohit Sharma as their lead bowlers, but soon realised they needed more forceful operators. In came Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma. By the time they reached New Zealand, India had gone to Bhuvneshwar, Ishant and Mohammed Shami. Varun Aaron made an appearance somewhere too. On this ODI tour, there is no Ishant or Aaron. The only constants are the two spinners, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, as much because of their batting as their bowling.
This series is also important because India need a bigger roadmap to arrest their overseas free-fall. There is no guarantee Ravi Shastri and the new band of domestic assistant coaches will be effective, or if Shastri will remain with the team after the series. He has had a few informal one-on-ones with Duncan Fletcher and a couple of players. He is expected to address the team formally for the first time on Saturday evening. Just pep talk won't do. He will have to come with solutions to the problems.
These are uncertain, and interesting, times for the team. They still have time before the World Cup, but not a lot of it.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo