What the series against Australia means for India
India have officially started looking at and building for the World Cup in England in 2019. Considering how they have performed in the last two Champions Trophies in England, and their current reputation, India will start among the favourites to regain the trophy they won in 2011.
While bilateral series continue to be played all the time, the focus and build-up are always with an eye on the next ICC event, which in the case of ODIs is every two years. Every bilateral series leading up to a World Cup must be viewed as an exercise for teams to find out things they didn't know already, to try new players and to adopt new strategies. Throwing different challenges at different players is a way to establish who is eventually going to fit the bill. Some players might fall by the wayside, and perhaps a few matches will be lost in the process, but that's a small price to pay for getting the trophy back home.
Here are the four things in focus for the five-match series against Australia.
The opening conundrum
This series was expected to be a face-off between the top three batsmen on either side. Shikhar Dhawan's unavailability for the first three games has opened up a slot and a new strand of thought.
While Ajinkya Rahane has been selected in the squad as the third opener, and therefore should be an automatic pick, KL Rahul makes an interesting case for his inclusion at the top. Rahane's credentials as an ODI player received a boost with his Man-of-the-Series performance in the five-match series against West Indies, but his overall numbers (most significantly his strike rate) continue to build a case against him. Even his runs in the West Indies came at a much slower rate than is the current norm for 50-over games (though it must be noted that that had a lot to do with the pitches too).
Rahul, on the other hand, is viewed as a special talent by India's think tank. The presence of Rohit Sharma and Dhawan at the top of the order pushed him down the order but his poor returns against Sri Lanka have ruined his case for a spot in the middle order somewhat. Since he opens in the longer format and bats at a reasonably fair clip, the team might be keen on giving him another go to stake his claim. In high-scoring games on flat pitches, he seems to be a candidate better equipped to capitalise in the first ten overs, but if the team indeed opts for Rahul, the selection of Rahane in the side will be questioned.
The absence of Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina from the ODI circuit of late has opened up a spot for one of the younger players to occupy. Against Sri Lanka, Rahul was given the first option to make the position his own, but he didn't fire in three games. In the last game of the series, Manish Pandey got a hit and made an immediate impression.
Has Pandey stolen a march over his Karnataka team-mate? The question that comes up is to do with Rahul's omission for the final game: were three failures enough to bring the curtains down on his prospects in the middle order? If not, why wasn't he given another chance? Removing Pandey after three good innings would be a travesty, but Rahul not getting more than three games isn't fair either.
In an ideal world, after his exploits against England, Kedar Jadhav deserved the first chance to audition for the No. 4 slot whenever it became available, but his ability to manipulate strike and play adventurous shots has resulted in him being pushed down to No. 6. The ideal finisher should have the ability to hit sixes at will and must be a swift mover between the wickets to put pressure on the outfielders; unfortunately Jadhav doesn't tick either box. He has performed adequately in the role so far but he isn't the kind of finisher a team craves, and India might want different personnel to finish. In the current side only Hardik Pandya fits that bill with the bat. Also, it's vital for a quality ODI side that one of their top six is able to bowl six to eight overs; there too, Pandya is the only legitimate choice.
Wickets with the new ball
If we were to leave the tour to Sri Lanka aside, India haven't been taking wickets as frequently as they should. In fact, even Zimbabwe have struck more often in fewer matches than India.
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If India were to really make progress towards regaining the World Cup in 2019, this is an area that needs to be addressed on a match-by-match basis. Even entertaining the thought of opening the bowling with anyone except the bowler who presents the most chances of taking wickets is a step in the opposite direction.
India experimented with Stuart Binny opening the bowling because he was best suited to bowling with the new ball. Often they have done the same with Pandya too. While it's understandable that both those players might struggle with the older ball, that's not an excuse to deny better bowlers the opportunity of taking wickets while the ball is new. Also, the chances are that slightly lesser bowlers would bowl better when the opposition are a few wickets down and trying to rebuild. Even if there's a temptation to bring Pandya in quickly, it must happen only after a few overs from the front-line fast bowlers.
While the focus is on Dhoni's immediate and long-term future, there are other pressing issues that require more attention. The way India handle these issues might also provide a look into the team's thinking on the matter of planning for the future.
Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash