Can MS Dhoni help Virat Kohli clinch elusive global title in T20I captaincy swansong?
Will the team management risk playing Hardik Pandya as a specialist batter?
The T20 World Cup will be Virat Kohli's last in the format as India captain, and also the farewell campaign for Ravi Shastri as the head coach. The BCCI has already pencilled in Rahul Dravid as the next head coach, but before starting on the succession planning, there's a World Cup to be won.
The seriousness on that front can be seen in the appointment of MS Dhoni as the mentor of the team exclusively for the tournament. In a briefing this week, Kohli welcomed Dhoni's presence, saying that it would not only boost the morale in dressing room but also have tangible benefits for players, since Dhoni can help with "intricate details of where the game is going" and that everyone can, as a result, "improve by that 1 or 2%". Dhoni will, therefore, be a part of the think tank, work on the tactics board with Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Shastri.
One clear advantage for India, though, is that all the players are accustomed to the conditions in the UAE - last year's IPL was played there in its entirety, while the second half of the 2021 edition was here there between September and October too. Many of the members of the squad, like KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan, Ravindra Jadeja and quite a few others have played key roles for their franchises in the UAE in this period, and there is a lot of class all around - the quick men are Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami, and there is the quality of R Ashwin and the mystery of Varun Chakravarthy in the spin department.
Kohli would want to end his stint as T20I - even T20, for that matter - leader by winning a global tournament. He remains the team's best batter. He has expressed his pride in creating a legacy that he feels will last long. Now to add some big-time success to that legacy.
Since losing the home series against Australia 2-0 before the 2019 ODI World Cup, India were unbeaten in eight series in a row, till the run came to an end in July when a second-string - and Covid-19-hit - India lost 2-1 in Sri Lanka. But that series allowed India to test their bench strength, which has swelled since 2016, when the last T20 World Cup was played. Since that World Cup, India have played 72 matches and won 45, for a win percentage of 66 - an indicator of their dominance.
Acceleration in the middle overs is something has been proven to be vital in T20 cricket. Since 2019, England's run rate in the middle overs has been the best at 8.72 followed by New Zealand (8.62), South Africa (8.25) and Pakistan (8.12). India, who are fifth on this list, have scored at 7.93 in this phase. On paper Suryakumar Yadav or Ishan Kishan, Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya, potentially the middle order that will line up, are high-impact batters, but they were far from fluent during the IPL.
But with Kohli deciding to bat at No. 3, India will likely have Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul at the top and will hope they provide robust beginnings. These are their three best batters, so expect one of them to aim to play deep into the innings. If they are able to set the pace, then the middle order gets going, followed by Ravindra Jadeja, who will combine with Pandya as the finisher, this is a line-up that can cause severe damage.
This batting line-up can also cover-up for any lack of depth, in case India decide to field three spinners.
By picking four frontline spinners alongside three fast men, India have made it clear that they feel the slower bowlers would make the difference. And it is a good mix too. There is a wristspinner (Rahul Chahar), two experienced fingerspinners (Ashwin and Jadeja), and a mystery spinner (Chakravarthy). Will India be bold enough to adopt a three-spinner strategy then? Unlikely, unless the conditions are like in Sharjah during the latest IPL. Playing three spinners also shrinks India's batting depth, so Chakravarthy might well be the top pick alongside Jadeja, especially for the middle overs.
The other question is, who will be India's second specialist fast man, with Bumrah the No. 1. Bhuvneshwar has vast experience and skills, but fitness and form have not been his friends. Shami has been one of the most improved seamers in recent years, especially at the death. It could be a happy headache for India.
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Since 2020, Jadeja has an average of 55.71 and a strike rate of 207.44 with the bat in the death overs in all T20s. Measured in terms of average (at least 150 deliveries in this period), Jadeja's average is one point behind David Miller (56). In terms of strike rate, Jadeja is behind only AB de Villiers (226.01), Kieron Pollard (223.46) and Andre Russell (208.16). While the power-hitting pair of Pant and Hardik Pandya have struggled for consistency, Jadeja has been a high-impact finisher.
Can Hardik play purely as a batter? He struggled with a back niggle during the second half of the IPL this year, and it is understood that the problem surfaced after he pushed himself hard in training prior to the tournament. Consequently, he missed Mumbai Indians' first two matches in the second leg and did not bowl for the second IPL in a row. Even with the bat, he had a rough time.
While he has retained his spot in India's 15, will the team management back him to perform as a specialist batter? Not to forget, Hardik did play as a batter last December in Australia and won the Player of the Series award.
KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli (capt), Suryakumar Yadav/Ishan Kishan, Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, Shardul Thakur, Varun Chakravarthy, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami/Bhuvneshwar Kumar
Stat inputs by Sampath Bandarupalli
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo