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Audition time for Ashwin and Washington, much to prove for Iyer and Suryakumar

The Asia Cup win would have given India a boost, but there could still be a few holes to plug in the World Cup squad

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
All it takes is one day… Some of India's top players may well be thinking, "All we got was one day." At home, that is. After a victorious Asia Cup campaign in Sri Lanka, they are back on the road, in Mohali, where India begin a three-ODI series against Australia on September 22.
Their run-up to the series hasn't been without its share of headaches, some good and some forced. But the team management is at least confident that players on the injury list will recover in time for India's World Cup campaign, which begins on October 8 in Chennai, also against Australia.
The biggest concern at this point is Axar Patel, India's third frontline spinner behind Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja. Axar is recovering from a left quadricep strain that he picked up during an Asia Cup Super Four fixture against Bangladesh last week.
He is undergoing remedial work at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, and his inclusion for the third ODI, for which the entire World Cup squad is available, is subject to fitness. Axar is crucial to India's plans, because he offers batting depth at No. 8, as he showed in that game against Bangladesh, where he made a valiant 34 to bring India within six runs of victory after the middle order floundered.
With the ball, however, Axar had his troubles at the Asia Cup. He lacked bite on some helpful decks, like in the Super Four fixture against Sri Lanka where he was the only India bowler to go wicketless in a defence of 213 on a dry turner. In all, he picked up just one wicket across 14 overs at the Asia Cup, and finished with an economy rate of 5.42.
But, for now, there's no reason to believe India might not want Axar at the World Cup if he is fit.
If he isn't, India are likely to choose from one of Washington Sundar and R Ashwin, who have both been included for the ODIs against Australia.
Both have excellent ODI records.
Washington's sample size, though, is significantly smaller than that of Ashwin. Washington's 17 ODI appearances have come across six years. But in the opportunities he's had in recent times, he has been prolific.
Public memory is short, but if you jog back to India's difficult tour of Bangladesh, where they lost the ODI series, Washington was one of the standout bowlers picking six wickets in three games at an economy of 3.30. During the limited-overs series against New Zealand that followed, he impressed with the bat, striking a 28-ball 50 to help India edge close in a steep chase.
In comparison, Ashwin has played 113 games, but just two in the last six years. This begs the question: if Ashwin was in India's plans as a back-up, shouldn't he have been in the squad a lot earlier?
"With guys like Ashwin, game time and time on the ground is not so much of a concern," Rohit Sharma said on Monday at the press conference to announce India's squad for the series. "Which is why we thought if he is an option for us, we need to get him in. With the kind of experience he has, for guys like him, it's all in the head more than the body. I thought getting him in could give us a chance to understand where he is at, how his body is and stuff like that."
Washington offers accuracy and control and can bowl at different stages of the innings. Similar attributes as Ashwin, but there's a difference. Ashwin has been playing some form of cricket or the other all along - on Tuesday, he turned up for a local team in a 50-overs game in Chennai before flying to Mohali. Washington's fitness has let him down often over the past three years.
He has, however, largely been injury-free since July, when he came back from a hamstring injury that ruled him out of the second half of IPL 2023. He was also on the tour of Ireland, prior to which he featured in both red-ball and white-ball matches in the domestic circuit.
Washington has been a long-running project for the team management since being earmarked as an allrounder good enough to bat in the top five. For now, he offers everything Axar does in the lower order, which may give him the edge if it comes to a shootout with Ashwin.
Now, if the team management fields one or both of Ashwin and Washington in the XIs against Australia, along with Ravindra Jadeja, who is the vice-captain, it could give some hints as to which way they will eventually go if Axar is ruled out.

In focus: Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav, Mohammed Shami

The other point of interest in the first two ODIs will be whether Ishan Kishan opens in Rohit' absence. And how Shreyas Iyer, who seems to have done most things asked of him to prove his fitness, and Suryakumar Yadav go in the middle order.
Elsewhere, it won't be a surprise if Mohammed Siraj is rested for at least a game despite being picked in the squad. This could bring Mohammed Shami into the fray with the new ball alongside Jasprit Bumrah. With the team management clear on wanting to give opportunities to those who couldn't get too many chances at the Asia Cup, it's likely that Prasidh Krishna, identified as one of the reserves for the World Cup, may get a look in to have him ready should there be a need to summon a late injury replacement.
It's unlikely the selectors are looking too far ahead just yet, but how KL Rahul the captain performs will be of some import too.
For someone who wasn't perhaps totally ready for the Asia Cup, fitness-wise, and was told minutes prior to the toss against Pakistan that he would be playing, and then to respond with a superb century, the wheels of fortune seem to have turned big time. It's the kind of sequence of events players needs at times to turn around not just their immediate fortunes but their careers as well.
India's previous ODI series against Australia earlier this year was seen as the start of the final stretch of games in the lead-up to the World Cup. This series will be a formation lap before the teams meet in Chennai in a little over two weeks, with everything on the line.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo