India have only five ODIs left before their first match in the World Cup. Unless there's a spate of injuries, it's fair to say that most places in the final 15 are taken for good. The two openers, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, got together in England in 2013 and have grown into one of the best opening pairs since then. Their partnership has been so fruitful that along with Virat Kohli at No. 3, they have contributed about two thirds of the total runs scored by India in the last couple of years.
Since Yuvraj Singh's omission from the team, India have tried a lot of players at No. 4. The list includes Ajinkya Rahane, Manish Pandey, Dinesh Karthik, Shreyas Iyer, Kedar Jadhav, Ambati Rayudu, Hardik Pandya and MS Dhoni (and I might be forgetting a couple of names here). Rayudu was the last one to enter the race and it needed only a handful of good knocks to put him at the top of the queue. Late starters have a significant advantage while the team is closing in on a world event, for there's hardly any time left for experimentation. There were some question marks about Rayudu's efficiency in trying circumstances but the last game of this tour has sealed his place.
Karthik is another one to join the reckoning late. His inclusion came on the back of some good numbers in the IPL and T20Is, and because India were still looking for a finisher. He might not have a typical finisher's game but he has found a way to be effective. An ideal white-ball finisher should have the power game to muscle fours and sixes. This upgraded version of Karthik has good game awareness and understanding of his strengths, and he has been able to target areas that fetch him boundaries. It's just that the number of times he has been dropped from the side in recent years has sowed the seeds of doubt about the team's long-term plans for him.
What's true about Karthik's finishing abilities is also true for Jadhav - another player assigned the job of finishing games. He is unorthodox in his approach, and like Karthik, finds unique ways to hit unprotected areas of the ground. But more importantly, it's his bowling - also unorthodox, yet very successful - that has sealed the spot for him; not just in the 15 but in the playing XI on most days. When it is a toss-up between Rayudu and Karthik, Jadhav is an automatic pick if India want to field six bowling options.
Dhoni is the wicketkeeper-batsman in the side and is likely to play an integral part in ensuring that the finishers aren't exposed too early on days when the top three fail. He is also the man entrusted with the responsibility of taking the right DRS reviews, and in helping the spinners plot and plan.
This leaves only one place for a reserve batsman in the 15. Till some time ago KL Rahul was looking certain to fly to England, for he is one of the rare Indian batsmen who could fit in as a reserve opener, a middle-order batsman, and also as a reserve keeper. His recent lack of form followed by a suspension have put a spanner in the works. With Rishabh Pant and Shubman Gill getting opportunities, once again the door has been pushed wide open. If Pant manages to make a strong impression in the limited opportunities he's likely to get at the highest level before the World Cup, and add a good IPL to that, he might win the race.
In Pant and Pandya, India will then have two power-hitters to take care of the death overs. Pandya as a bowler and fielder is also adding the requisite balance to the side. I'm still not convinced that he could be the fifth bowler, but he definitely walks into the playing XI as a package.
Four seamers are essential in England, and three have sealed their spots already. In the last 24 months, Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have been the lead white-ball bowlers for India, and Mohammed Shami has joined them at the top in the last few months.
ALSO READ: What is Dhoni's role in India's ODI side?
The only question is about who the reserve seamer might be, and while many have been auditioned lately (Shardul Thakur, Deepak Chahar, Siddarth Kaul, Mohammad Siraj, Basil Thampi), it feels like Khaleel Ahmed is leading the race. Not by a significant margin, though. If he wasn't a left-arm seamer, he might have faced a tougher challenge from some of the others.
Since the ICC guideline is to pick only 15 players for the World Cup, the Indian selectors will no longer have the luxury of adding a few more names to cover all possible bases. We have already picked 13 thus far, and that leaves two spinners. It's a no-brainer that both Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal will make the final 15, which, in turn, means that Ravindra Jadeja's late burst might not be enough to get him in. However much you want to find a place for another allrounder-spinner, I think it's not viable to pick him at the cost of either an extra batsman or a fast bowler.