India have started their home season, ahead of the ODI World Cup in October-November, with clean sweeps of Sri Lanka and New Zealand, despite the absence of some key players. Here are some takeaways from their performances over the past two weeks.
Siraj leads the attack in Bumrah's absence
Mohammed Siraj has cemented his position as one of India's premier fast bowlers - with or without Jasprit Bumrah. When there is juice in the pitch, he gets the new ball to swing and seam, and when there isn't, he unleashes his wobble-seam variation which has proven even harder to handle. His 14 wickets in five ODIs against Sri Lanka and New Zealand even helped rise to No.1 on the ODI bowlers rankings.
"The more cricket he [Siraj] has played, he has become better in terms of understanding his bowling," India captain Rohit Sharma said. "In this game it's about understanding what you can do, what is your ability, the moment you understand that you can be more effective for the team… Siraj has exactly done that in last couple of years that he has played whichever format be it. He has done really well, he understands what the team is expecting from him: to come and take the new ball, swing the ball, get early wickets, in the middle overs."
"Honestly, the way he was batting in this series, [and] even before the series, I don't think much needs to be told [to him]," Rohit said. "He understands his game very well, he paces his innings very well. That is what you want in one-day cricket, you want big [scores], you want to go deep into the game. He has shown it, he has got big hundreds, no matter how flat the pitch is to get a double-hundred is not easy. It shows he was calculative and he understood [that] he needs to bat deep. The set batsman needs to bat as long as possible. That is what the reason we got 350-plus total in that game. He has got great maturity in the way he thinks about the game and the way he approaches the game. That is all I can say. I have not had played lot of cricket with him but from the first time I saw him in Australia in Test series, we all know how he batted at that Test match at the Gabba."
After being left out of the side for the Sri Lanka ODIs, Shardul Thakur proved his all-round value against New Zealand, strengthening his case to be India's No. 8 at the World Cup. In the first ODI, Michael Bracewell gave India an almighty scare by taking New Zealand from 131 for 6 to within two sixes of levelling their score (349). And it was Thakur who closed that game out by trapping Bracewell with a dipping yorker. Then, in the third ODI, on a ground with 60m boundaries on all sides, Thakur proved the difference between the two sides by breaking the back of New Zealand's middle order all in the space of 10 balls.
"He has got the knack of taking wickets at crucial times for us," Rohit said. "We have seen it, not just in ODI cricket but also in Test cricket. There are so many instances that I remember [when] there is a partnership building from the opposition and he came in and got us through. He is very critical to us, we know where we stand as a team, what he brings to us is very critical. I just hope that he keeps putting up performances like this and it will only do good for the team.
"He is very smart, he has played lot of domestic cricket, he has come up through the ranks, and he understands what needs to be done. In this format you need to use your skill and Shardul definitely has some skills. He has a good knuckle ball; he bowled it to Tom Latham today, that was nicely planned in the middle by few players and I was not included in that (laughs). It was Virat, Hadik and Shardul; so it was a good plan. At the end of the day, if a plan works for the team, we all are happy."
India batted first in four of the six ODIs against Sri Lanka and New Zealand, piling up totals of 373 for 7, 390 for 5, 349 for 8 and 385 for 9. Wary of the effect of dew later in the evening, they showed greater attacking enterprise to combat the conditions.
Rohit himself has been at the forefront of India's new, gung-ho ODI approach by going much faster and harder in the powerplay. "If you see, we have scored perhaps four times in excess of 350 in these six games, so it tells you that we want to play with a specific approach," he said. "When you want to achieve all of those things, you are definitely not going to look at those numbers. Even if you are on 99 and if the ball is there, you should go for it. That's the kind of message, thought-process and the mindset I want the guys to have. It's important to play fearless cricket but at the same time, you need to show smartness. You cannot heave wildly. We need to be smart and at the same time not be afraid of taking risk."
Kuldeep keeps himself in World Cup mix
After Yuzvendra Chahal suffered a shoulder injury during the ODI series against Sri Lanka, Kuldeep Yadav stepped off the bench and put in a Player-of-the-Match performance at Eden Gardens. The left-arm wristspinner's 3 for 15 restricted Sri Lanka to 215 and served a reminder that he could still cut it in ODI cricket.
In the absence of Chahal, Kuldeep also had his moments in the first two ODIs against New Zealand before the duo were reunited for the third match in Indore. Despite the tiny boundaries there and dew making it hard to grip the ball, Kuldeep kept creating opportunities for India and kept beating the New Zealand batters in the air.
The third ODI was a rare instance of India fitting both the wristspinners in their XI and testing them out in tough conditions. With the team set to play at least one fingerspin-bowling allrounder in the World Cup, the narrative will shift to Kuldeep vs Chahal once again during the three-match ODI series against Australia in March.