Big series for India's World Cup contenders
The No. 6 position: Yusuf Pathan has three challengers: Virat Kohli, Saurabh Tiwary, and Ravindra Jadeja. It's increasingly getting clearer that India will go with a batting allrounder which means Yusuf, with that recent brutal hundred against New Zealand, has the edge. Kohli can bowl mediumpace - Anil Kumble used him a few times in the IPL - but it's his form as a batsman that sets him up against Yusuf at No. 6. If Yusuf hadn't found his mojo in Bangalore, Kohli's chances would have strengthened. Kohli will get more opportunities in South Africa but in the current scenario, he doesn't fit in at No 6. Kohli's case now can now be distilled to this emotive question: how can you drop someone who has played so well in recent games? But he played as a No. 3 and you will have to weigh his case against Gautam Gambhir for that slot.
All this leaves Yusuf as the clear frontrunner for No. 6. It's still not an open-and-shut case though. What if Yusuf's imperious knock against New Zealand was an aberration? Also, does the situation alter if Yusuf fails in South Africa? Or will the selectors make a clear distinction about his prowess in subcontinental conditions, where the World Cup will be played, and disregard any failures in South Africa. All things said, Yusuf can definitely seal the No. 6 slot if he does well in South Africa.
No. 4: Yuvraj Singh has two challengers in Kohli and Suresh Raina. However, doubts over Yuvraj's spot will only arise if his Test performances are taken into consideration. Yuvraj can win an ODI with his batting, and provides the best ODI bowling option among irregulars like Virender Sehwag, Raina, and Kohli. It could be argued that Sehwag is a better bowler but the ODI statistics reveal that Yuvraj has been the most dependable. The question, then, is over his batting position: should he bat at No. 4 or lower? At No. 4, his average is a shade below his career average but in this team, and considering his experience, that seems to be the right position for him.
No. 4 part II: An interesting alternative is to have MS Dhoni bat at No. 4. He has ceased to be an all-out attacker and has re-invented himself as a very effective player who smartly controls the pace during the middle overs. There is a school of thought that he should bat lower and return to his big-hitting ways. That can work if his return to destroying mode is a given, but it's not going be to that easy. Even in the IPL, where he had the licence to hit, Dhoni wasn't the marauder of old, barring in the odd innings. Power-hitting doesn't come as easily, and perhaps as naturally, as it once did. If that remains the case, India would benefit more if Dhoni bats at no. 4 or 5. Eventually, we might see him floating up and down the order.
No. 4 to No. 7 might eventually be filled by floaters. No one might own any position. If too many early wickets fall, Dhoni might send in Yuvraj and Raina ahead of him. If he feels the middle overs need to be controlled in a steady manner, he might push himself up. And if not many wickets have fallen, and only a few overs remain, he might push Yusuf ahead.
No. 3: Gautam Gambhir has a challenger in Kohli. They are most likely to go with the experience of Gambhir though Kohli is trying his best to stay in contention; he hit two consecutive hundreds, crossed 50 on four successive occasions late last year and, importantly, showed the ability to smartly pace his innings. Gambhir won't be featuring in the South Africa series, which presents Kohli with a great opportunity to present more selection headaches. However, Gambhir's experience - and since he too was in good form - is likely to help him secure the No. 3 spot.
No. 5: Raina v Kohli. Raina's Test woes and his problems against short balls have overshadowed his average ODI form. He has just one half-century in his last 16 innings. So will they consider the in-form Kohli, who has batted at No. 5 in the IPL, over Raina? This could turn out to be a tricky decision. Both are good fielders but Raina's offbreaks provide a better option than Kohli's mediumpace in subcontinental conditions. Also, Raina is more suited than Kohli in the lower order as he is a bigger hitter. He can, in theory, get going even when new to the crease, and possesses more big shots than Kohli. But what if Raina fails in South Africa as well? Will it be better to go in with an in-form Kohli even in the subcontinent? This South Africa series becomes all the more important for Kohli as if he doesn't turn it on here, and Raina does even reasonably well, the selectors are likely to go for the latter.
The second wicketkeeper
Wriddhiman Saha needs runs to show that he deserves that spot. Parthiv Patel grabbed his chances in the ODIs against New Zealand and has become a strong challenger. However, if Parthiv makes the playing XI, his best position is as an opener, where he can play as a pinch-hitter, but he won't get that position. Will he be as useful in the lower order? Can he play the big shots when the field is spread out? May be not, but the question is whether Dinesh Karthik or Saha can do any better? The thing with Parthiv is that he can get in there and try to swing from the first ball. Karthik is a more conventional batsman, and probably can play bigger innings than Patel, but with the line-up packed with accomplished batsmen, Parthiv's utility as a pinch hitter might fit better in this team.
Will India go in with three seamers and one spinner or are they more likely to drop a seamer for a second spinning option? Considering the fact that all their part-timers - Yusuf, Yuvraj, Sehwag and Raina - provide the spin option, India are likely to go with three seamers and Harbhajan Singh. Pragyan Ojha has been economical and R Ashwin, who did well in the final ODI against New Zealand, can bowl in the Powerplays, but two regular spinners might be a luxury unless the conditions turn out to be spin-friendly. If Zaheer Khan is fit, he is certain to play and that leaves Praveen Kumar, Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel, Sreesanth, and Ishant Sharma to fight out for the remaining two spots.
Nehra didn't bowl well at the death in the fourth ODI against New Zealand and leaked runs with the new ball in the fifth but he has done a great job in the recent past. He is the man that MS Dhoni turns to during the Powerplays and in the slog overs. Two poor games against New Zealand can't spoil that reputation and if he can present his A game in South Africa, he will seal his spot.
Praveen Kumar is an impact bowler with the new ball that he moves both ways and relies on variation in pace as the ball gets old. His best performances have usually come with the new ball but the question to be asked is whether any of his challengers can do vastly better with the old ball? Munaf Patel can be steady but Sreesanth and Ishant have not shown any great skills with the old ball.
So, Zaheer, Praveen, and Nehra seem to be the top three contenders in the seam department. Sreesanth, who did well in the second ODI against New Zealand, has to produce memorable performances in South Africa to strengthen his case. Useful middle-of-the-road efforts won't help him; he needs a tremendous series to help the management forget the fact that he has the second-worst economy rate in the list of bowlers with at least 50 wickets.
Munaf did himself no harm with disciplined performances against New Zealand. He hit the short-of-good-length area and attacked the off stump, but would a better batting outfit have handled him better? Nehra and Praveen have repeatedly done well against the best and so, Munaf will have to settle for a spot below them in the pecking order.
In the here and now, Ishant Sharma probably ranks with Sreesanth in the ODIs. Praveen's injury has given him an opportunity to impress and, like Sreesanth, he too will need a great series to move up the order.
In case there arises a need for a second spinner, who will India turn to? Ojha has better economy and strike-rates than Ashwin, but he has played more games. Also, more importantly, Ashwin is the bowler that Dhoni is more likely to turn to in Powerplays. There is the suggestion that Ojha will offer variety with his left-arm spin, but Yuvraj plays that role anyway. Right now, Ashwin looks a better pick than Ojha to partner Harbhajan.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo