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Who will be Rohit's opening partner, and more questions for India

There is a toss-up for new-ball bowlers and a debutant vying for a spot in the middle order

Nagraj Gollapudi
KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma celebrate India's thrilling win, New Zealand v India, 3rd T20I, Hamilton, January 29, 2020

KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma have been scintillating for India at the top of the order  •  AFP

The five-match T20 series against England, the top-ranked T20I team in the world, will not only allow India's home dominance to be tested, but also help Virat Kohli's team use it as a dry run to firm up key positions and combinations before finalising the squad for the T20 World Cup, scheduled for October-November in India.
Following are three questions the Indian team management is likely to focus on during the course of the series.
Who should be Rohit's opening partner: Dhawan or Rahul?
With Rishabh Pant set to perform the role of the wicketkeeper-batsman, Rahul may have to play as a specialist batsman. And opening the batting is the most favourable position for Rahul, who has done the job assertively for Kings XI Punjab over the last three years.
Compared in terms of numbers, Rahul has an edge over Dhawan. Since 2019, if you combine both T20s and IPL, Dhawan has scored 854 runs at a strike rate of 133.43 and an average of 40.66. Rahul has hit 960 runs at a strike rate of 136.36 and a far superior average of 87.27 as he tends to bat deep into an innings. In the middle overs Dhawan has 641 runs at a strike rate of 131.08 and an average of 29.13. Rahul slows down, too, in the middle overs, his strike rate dipping to 129.05. However, he averages 41.84 having scored 795 runs in this phase.
As a left-right combination, Sharma and Dhawan provide variety at the top and they have vast experience to handle pressure. But both men use the same modus operandi: start slow, get settled before taking off, which at times, especially while batting first, has been a factor in their teams failing to raise a par total.
In contrast robust starts from the Sharma-Rahul combine has helped India raise massive targets. In 2017, against Sri Lanka in Indore, India were able to raise 260 for 5 on the back of the opening stand of 165 in 12.4 overs. Two years later, against West Indies in Mumbai, India scored 240 for 3 after Sharma and Rahul blasted an opening stand of 135 in 11.4 overs.
Overall, of the 18 opening pairs globally with a cut-off of minimum of 500 T20I runs, the Sharma and Rahul pairing is the third-best on average (50.72) and second on run-rate (9.96). Of the five opening pairs to have piled at least 1000 runs in T20Is Sharma-Dhawan's numbers are among the weakest. Their average of 33.51 is the seventh-worst and run rate of 8.28 is the fourth-worst.
Clearly it is then a choice of safety against being bold.
Give debut to Suryakumar Yadav or stick to Shreyas Iyer in the middle order?
Before he got injured in the final match of the T20 series in Australia last year, Shreyas Iyer had 38 as his highest in five matches in the white-ball segment of the tour where he batted in the middle order. Iyer was pushed into a corner by Australia's short-ball ploy as he failed to nail a spot.
Iyer comes into the England series with two centuries in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, but faces stiff competition from Mumbai team-mate Suryakumar Yadav, who has been waiting in the wings with several impactful innings in the last two seasons for the Mumbai Indians.
Their role will be to take forward (or create) the momentum set by the top order while trying to impose themselves on the spinners. Here Yadav has a slight edge even if he has only featured in the IPL. Since 2019, Yadav has made 352 runs in the IPL against spinners at an average of 50.28 and a strike rate of 130.85. In the same period Iyer has scored 466 runs at an average of 31.06 and a strike rate of 124.59 while playing in both IPL and for India.
Already knowing what Iyer's strengths are, the series presents the team management an opportunity to test Yadav's calibre against a quality bowling attack.
Who should be the two new-ball bowlers?
With Hadik Pandya expected to return to bowling, India are likely to play two other specialist quicks in addition to one specialist spinner in Yuzvendra Chahal and two bowling allarounders - Washington Sundar and Axar Patel. In the absence of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, India will want at least one experienced bowler. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who returns to play for India for the first time since December 2019, will get priority in order to get him more match time.
With T Natajaan yet to land in Ahmedabad, the second specialist fast man will be a choice between Shardul Thakur, Deepak Chahar and Navdeep Saini. With Saini having not played any cricket since recovering from the groin injury he picked during the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, it could be a race between Thakur and Chahar, both of whom featured in all three matches of the T20 series in Australia.
While Chahar can be counted on opening and closing the innings with his swing and variations, Thakur's pace and swing coupled with his hit-the-deck approach make him a dangerous bowler in the middle-overs phase. Add to that the solid batting form Thakur is in right now: after his match-turning half century in the Brisbane triumph, Thakur recently hit 92 in the Vijay Hazare Trophy for Mumbai before travelling to Ahmedabad. So he adds to India's batting depth.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo