Over the course of their last three ODI series, with enough opportunities to test out different combinations and even rest some of their main players, India have more or less figured out who the regulars and the back-ups will be at the World Cup. But what about the final XI? In particular, what of the seam bowlers in it?
Mohammed Shami has made an impressive return to ODI cricket after playing only three ODIs between the 2015 World Cup semi-final and the first game of the West Indies series in October 2018. But has he snuck ahead of Bhuvneshwar Kumar as India's No. 2 seamer after Jasprit Bumrah?
What's their recent form like? Are they even battling for the same spot?
During the West Indies series, Shami played in the first two ODIs and was dropped for the last three - it was a straight swap, with Bhuvneshwar being called back after a rest as West Indies posed a tougher challenge than India had perhaps anticipated. At least at that point, it was clear who was considered the frontline option. However, they had identical returns by the end of that series, picking up three wickets each.
Since then, they've both been at the forefront, thanks to Bumrah being rested in consecutive series against Australia and New Zealand. And once again, their returns are similar. Bhuvneshwar has taken one more wicket than Shami, while Shami has taken those wickets in two innings fewer. They've bowled roughly the same number of balls, and the only notable differentiator is Bhuvneshwar's marginally better economy rate, 5.18 against Shami's 5.45.
With Hardik Pandya providing balance at No. 7, you'd think India are guaranteed to start their ace wristspinners in every match. Bumrah is the only player other than Virat Kohli who gets his workload managed closely, and he will come straight back into the XI when it's time. That leaves one specialist fast bowler spot open in India's strongest bowling line-up. On recent form, Bhuvneshwar and Shami are the only contenders for it, with both Khaleel Ahmed and Umesh Yadav some distance behind.
Why India might pick Shami
It's almost shocking when you realise that Shami has played international cricket for six years. As Aakash Chopra pointed out in his dissection of Shami's recent rise, it's taken him some time to weed out the stray-onto-the-pad, and build sequences that lead to wickets. He has always had the world-class wicket-taking ball in him, but 2018 was a year of maturity. And it's been noticed big time, as evidenced by Ravi Shastri singling him out as the standout performer at the end of the New Zealand series.
During his man-of-the-series performance against New Zealand, and the series before in Australia, one element particularly stood out: the lengths with which he took his wickets. A look at the graphic below shows that of the 17 wickets he's taken since the West Indies series, 10 have been from deliveries bowled short or short of a good length. This suggests that apart from being troublesome early on, Shami has a wicket-taking option when the ball gets older. Shami has seemingly also developed an effective slower ball, although the sample size for that on the ESPNcricinfo database isn't substantial enough.
Shami doesn't, however, have the greatest record in T20 cricket. Or with injuries. There is an IPL season in the lead-up to the World Cup, and he is Kings XI Punjab's only premier Indian fast bowler. His form and fitness will both be tested during that period. Should he get through that, though, India will have some serious thinking to do. The numbers he boasts when bowling in tandem with the bowlers India's attack currently possesses - despite never having bowled with Bumrah - makes him near undroppable.
Why India might pick Bhuvneshwar
Bhuvneshwar has often been the answer, without ever being the solution. His being the first Indian player to take five-wicket hauls in all formats is a major indicator of his ability. Yet, his ODI bowling average of 35.91 in 103 games takes away from that. He is highly regarded as a slog-overs bowler - among the best in T20 cricket - but is behind Shami (45) by five wickets in the 40-50 overs phase of an ODI, despite playing 19 more matches. Their economy rates are the same for all practical purposes - 7.37 and 7.38.
Still, Bhuvneshwar would be the safer option for India. He is still India's best swing bowler, an invaluable trait ahead of a tournament in England. For all that his overall numbers suggest, his recent form - especially in the Powerplays - is on par with Shami's and no one since the last World Cup has bowled as many dot balls. In a team that lacks patently defense-minded bowlers, this ability gives him a push. As does the fact that he is the only lower-order batsman (eight to 11) since the last World Cup to aggregate more than 100 runs. Over nine group-stage games, Shami and Bhuvneshwar will be rotated, but India will almost definitely have Bhuvneshwar at No. 8 in their strongest XI if they make the semi-finals.
With inputs from Shiva Jayaraman and Gaurav Sundararaman