While the two Test matches between India and West Indies reaffirmed the gulf in quality between the two teams, the ODI series is telling us about their respective approaches in planning for the World Cup.
Limited-overs cricket revolves around ICC events at the moment. In Test cricket, teams are looking for continuous improvement to become not just the best team in the ICC rankings year on year but also to improve their home-away records. On the other hand, in limited-overs cricket it isn't just about being the best team at that point in time but about preparation for the next World Cup - only the silverware every four years can validate that any team is truly the best in the format. Hypothetically, if there's a year of top-level cricket left in a good player but the World Cup is two years away, it isn't surprising if that player's career isn't allowed to run its course. It might be unfair on the cricketer but teams are well within their rights to do whatever it takes to prepare for the next big event, even at the cost of some short-term collateral damage.
West Indies have come to India with a severely depleted unit - so much so that there's a possibility they might field a completely different playing XI for the World Cup. The likes of Chris Gayle, Andre Russell, Sunil Narine, Kieron Pollard and Evin Lewis could walk into the playing XI, depending on when and whether they make themselves available for selection and are picked. I'm not privy to the dynamics of West Indian cricket, and therefore not in a position to comment on who's in the wrong and by how much, but there's no denying that this is not a good way to prepare for a World Cup that is only seven months away.
On the other hand, in the last year and a half or so, every move that the Indian team has made indicates that they have their eyes on the prize. We might argue with the choices, and with the amount of time given to some of the players to establish themselves, but there is subjectivity involved there, and the team management and the selectors have the right to act as they deem fit. One can disagree with the process but not with the intent.
It's not limited to just ODI cricket, for the Test matches against West Indies were also regarded from the point of view of the upcoming Australia tour. That's why Prithvi Shaw was given a go, Kuldeep Yadav was bowled a lot, and Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar rested to accommodate Umesh Yadav for both the Tests. Even Shardul Thakur was played in the second Test.
While these changes did make sense, one also felt that there was scope to go a step further and play Mayank Agarwal somehow, and maybe Hanuma Vihari too. It could have meant Virat Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja missing the second Test (for resting one of the single-format players would have been unfair). Since Agarwal hasn't debuted and Vihari has played only one Test, India might feel a little undercooked for the tour down under. Having said that, resting Kohli and Jadeja might not have gone down well with many either.
Anyway, that's done, and with the five-match ODI series, the focus has swiftly moved to the World Cup again. Once again Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar have been rested, so as to find the third and fourth seamer for England. The absence of Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya has also opened the door for Rishabh Pant to be auditioned in the finisher's role.
Eight players have played at No. 4 after Yuvraj Singh's last game in India colours, and the spot still is up for grabs. The fact that Dinesh Karthik is out of favour suggests that the search has been narrowed down: the race for No. 4 seems to be between Ambati Rayudu and Manish Pandey.
Jadeja's comeback in limited-overs cricket also seemed to have sealed the spin-bowling allrounder's spot. Now, in Jadhav, Pandya and Jadeja, India have a batsman who can bowl spin, a batsman who can bowl seam-up, and a spin bowler who can bat at seven. This provides Kohli with multiple options while picking the final XI to suit the conditions and the opposition.
While India are leading 1-0, West Indies have already shown that this series could possibly be much closer than a lot of us might have thought it would be. India have a call to make: do they keep focusing on the big picture, even if it means losing a game or two, and maybe even a series; or do they focus solely on the outcome of every game they play? It's important for the team to make sure that they get to know everything they want to know about Rayudu and Pant, and even Pandey if possible. But in order to do that, they will have to either shuffle the playing XI or the batting order in the remaining matches.
India's top three are arguably the best in the world in the ODI format, and if they keep coming out to bat at one, two and three match after match, they will keep limiting the role of the batsmen who follow them in the order. Also, the search for the third and fourth seamers can only continue to take place if the temptation to field Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah is resisted.
With only three matches to go in the series, India must do everything it takes to dispel any doubts they might have about Rayudu, Pant, Pandey, Umesh, Mohammed Shami and Mohammad Khaleel, for they might not be in position to do so down under or during the tour of New Zealand