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Talking points: Spotlight on Kohli the batter, Rahul's slot, and India's bowling combination

Also, is it Dhawan's last chance to seal a place in the limited-overs side? How will the team manage Bumrah's workload?

Hemant Brar
Hemant Brar
Virat Kohli, who is sitting out the second Test, trains before the start of play, South Africa vs India, 2nd Test, Johannesburg, 3rd day, January 5, 2021

For the first time since October 2016, Virat Kohli will be playing only as a player and not as a captain  •  AFP/Getty Images

India missed a golden opportunity to register their maiden Test series win in South Africa, but they will have to put that behind quickly as they kick off the three-match ODI series on January 19, under a new captain. Here're some of the talking points ahead of the series.
Kohli, the batter
When India take the field in Paarl on Wednesday, it will be the first time in any format since October 2016 that Virat Kohli will be playing only as a player and not as captain. The Kohli-cam, though, might still be around, this time to record how he adjusts to the role. Kohli himself will be hoping that not having the extra responsibility of leading the side helps him find his form back. While his numbers in Test cricket have nosedived of late, he has been fairly consistent in ODIs. Since the start of 2020, Kohli has scored 560 runs in 12 ODIs, at an average of 46.66 and a strike rate of 90.90. So that's already a good sign.
Big series for Dhawan
When a second-string Indian side toured Sri Lanka last July, Shikhar Dhawan was the captain and was looking forward to making his place "stronger" for the 2021 T20 World Cup. The selectors, though, preferred Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul as the main opening pair and Ishan Kishan as a backup.
That leaves ODIs as the only format now where Dhawan is somewhat assured of his place. However, at 36, age is not on his side. Plus, he is coming into this series on the back of an abysmal Vijay Hazare Trophy, where he managed just 56 runs in five innings. On the other hand, Ruturaj Gaikwad, his potential replacement, was the top scorer in the tournament with 603 runs in five matches, including four centuries. Given the next T20 World Cup just nine months away, India's focus will soon shift to T20Is. Dhawan, therefore, would like to make the most of this opportunity.
Where will Rahul bat?
In the last two years, Rahul has mostly batted in the middle order in ODI cricket, and he has been excellent there: 554 runs at 69.25 with a strike rate of 109.92. But with Rohit unavailable, an opening slot has opened up. Will Rahul move up the order? If he does, India will still have a middle order of Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav and Rishabh Pant.
But given Rahul's success in the middle order, the team management may not want to tinker with his role. In that case, Kishan or Gaikwad could open with Dhawan. The selectors will be keeping one eye on Rahul the captain too as they weigh their options for India's next red-ball leader.
Venkatesh Iyer as allrounder
Venkatesh Iyer first drew attention when he scored 198 against Punjab in a Vijay Hazare Trophy game. Then, in the UAE leg of IPL 2021, he revived Kolkata Knight Riders' fortunes with his batting. But all those runs came while opening the innings. To prove his credentials as a finisher in 50-over cricket, Venkatesh batted in the middle order in the Vijay Hazare Trophy this season.
The results were equally impressive. In six games, he scored 379 runs - including two hundreds and a fifty - at an average of 63.16 and a strike rate of 133.92. With the ball, he picked up nine wickets at an economy rate of 5.75. But more importantly, apart from one game where he didn't bowl, he almost always finished his quota of ten overs. With Hardik Pandya not in the side, Venkatesh will have a chance to present his case as an allrounder.
What will be India's bowling combination?
For all the numbers Venkatesh has, India may still consider him only as their sixth bowling option. And that could affect the whole playing XI. If Venkatesh plays, India would like to have someone apart from four frontline bowlers to roll his arm over. That would mean sacrificing a batter to accommodate, say, Shardul Thakur. As far as the four frontline bowlers are concerned, India could go with three seamers and a spinners, or with two of each kind.
Another option is to leave out Venkatesh altogether and go with five batters, a wicketkeeper and five proper bowlers, with Deepak Chahar batting at No. 7 as bowling allrounder. That will, though, rob the captain of flexibility.
Ashwin's ODI comeback
R Ashwin last played an ODI in June 2017. He did make his white-ball comeback at the T20 World Cup last year, where he picked up six wickets in three games at an economy of 5.25, but the challenge in ODIs will be different. In T20Is, if one bowls four quiet overs, it's a job done well. Here the team would want him to provide breakthroughs in the middle overs. Can he do that? Also, if there is room for only one spinner, he will face stiff competition from Yuzvendra Chahal.
Bumrah's workload management
Jasprit Bumrah is the vice-captain for the series, but the team management will be monitoring his workload. This series is not part of the World Cup Super League, and even if it were, India have already qualified by the virtue of being the hosts for the 2023 World Cup. Bumrah may start but with three games to be played in five days, it will not be a surprise if India decide to give him some downtime.

Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo