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The Kishan dilemma, Kuldeep vs Chahal, Malik's rise: India face tricky calls vs NZ

In the absence of KL Rahul and Axar Patel, India will be testing out a few of their bench players

Deivarayan Muthu
After a mere two-day break following their record drubbing of Sri Lanka, India will resume their prep for the ODI World Cup with a three-match series against New Zealand, who are currently on top of the ICC's rankings. However, in the absence of KL Rahul and Axar Patel, India will have to tweak their combination and make some potentially tricky decisions ahead of the first ODI in Hyderabad on Wednesday.

Will Kishan keep wicket and open the batting?

With Rahul missing the series because of family commitments and Rishabh Pant in recovery after a serious car crash, Ishan Kishan has emerged as the frontrunner to keep wicket in both the ODI and the T20I series against New Zealand. However, it remains to be seen whether he slots right back in as an opener in 50-over cricket.
Despite shellacking a 126-ball double-century last month - the fastest ever in ODI cricket - Kishan was benched for the Sri Lanka series, with Shubman Gill getting the nod ahead of him. Gill scored two fifty-plus scores in three innings, and worked his way towards establishing himself as an all-format player for India. However, if India want to fit Suryakumar Yadav in the middle order in place of Rahul, and want Kishan to have another go at the top along with captain Rohit Sharma, then Gill could potentially drop out of the XI.

Kuldeep vs Chahal

With India all but certain to play at least one fingerspin-bowling allrounder, it has always been about Yuzvendra Chahal vs Kuldeep Yadav in this ODI World Cup year. If Chahal still hasn't recovered sufficiently from the shoulder complaint that put him out of the last two ODIs against Sri Lanka, then Kuldeep might surely start the New Zealand series.
However, if Chahal is fit again, India will have to a make a difficult choice between the two wristspinners. Though Chahal has leaked runs in his last few ODI outings, his experience and slow legbreaks are still valuable, particularly at home. Kuldeep has also presented his case, bridging the gap between Chahal and himself by adding more vigour to his action which is enabling him to get a little more drift and a little more turn. He has bagged two Player-of-the-Match awards in his last three international games, which could be hard to ignore.

More game-time for Washington?

With Ravindra Jadeja still working his way back from injury and Axar also taking a break due to family reasons, offspin-bowling allrounder Washington Sundar could be set for a consistent run in the ODIs and T20Is against New Zealand.
Bengal's left-arm fingerspinner Shahbaz Ahmed has been drafted in as Axar's like-for-like replacement in the ODI squad, but it is Washington's offspin that could be matched up with New Zealand's left-hander heavy line-up that could include all of Devon Conway, Mark Chapman, Tom Latham, Michael Bracewell and Mitchell Santner.
Washington has missed at least two World Cups because of injury since his international debut in 2017, and this is now his chance to break the jinx. Since IPL 2022, he has worked specifically on power-hitting and expanding his range of strokes some of which were on display during his cameos in New Zealand late last year.
Washington had also dropped down the order for his state team Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy to get accustomed to closing out the innings. Having started his career as a top-order batter, he is on the path towards reinventing himself as a spinner and a finisher.

The return of Thakur

After being left out for the ODI series against Sri Lanka, Shardul Thakur is back in the mix, with left-arm seamer Arshdeep Singh dropping out of the squad. With Bhuvneshwar no longer on India's radar and Deepak Chahar still unfit, Thakur gets another opportunity as a seam bowler who can also offer batting depth. Although Thakur isn't a genuine swing bowler like Chahar, he can also bowl with the new ball, something he did on the Bangladesh tour.
Thakur also has some recent batting form against the New Zealanders on his side. In September against New Zealand A in Chennai, he cracked 51 off 33 balls from No. 8 to help drag India A close to 300.

Malik steps up in Prasidh's absence

In the early half of 2022, Prasidh Krishna was India's chief enforcer with his hit-the-deck bustle, but a long injury layoff has set his career back. In the absence of Prasidh, India's team management has turned to Umran Malik for high pace and bounce in the middle overs. Malik has not gone wicketless in the six completed ODIs he has played so far.
When Sri Lanka were making a good fist of a chase of 374 on a flat pitch in Guwahati, it was Malik who provided India with a point of difference by ripping out Pathum Nissanka, Charith Asalanka and Dunith Wellalage with rapid deliveries. Similar bowling performances will keep Malik in India's World Cup frame, with or without Prasidh.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo