The banter has begun. The prophecies of a 4-0 drubbing and suggestions on whether or not to sledge Virat Kohli have started to come in. From the build-up, it seems like it’s the Test series that is right around the corner. Such has been the fortunes of ODIs, especially the bilateral ones, for quite some time now.
Stuck between the purity of Test cricket and fanaticism of T20s, ODIs get attention only when the World Cup beckons. Given the days lost due to the pandemic, in 12 months and 19 ODIs in between, India will be nearing its home World Cup and conversations around whether they have a squad that ticks all boxes will surface. Between now and then lies the groundwork.
Right now, England is the ideal side to compete with for every team that wants to test its white-ball mettle. Till that happens, Australia is the next best option for India. Especially in their backyard where quicker tracks and longer boundaries have often been a humbling experience for even the best of India’s batsmen.
In terms of results, India have had the better of Australia in ODIs in recent times. Apart from beating them in the World Cup game, India triumphed 2-1 the last time these two sides engaged in an ODI series in India in January 2020. The result was the same when they met Down Under in 2019. The result of the series in between these two would have been the same had it been a three-match series as well. In March 2019 in India, Australia came back from behind to win the 5-match series 3-2.
Given a full-strength squad, one might call the two sides evenly matched. But, the absence of Rohit Sharma, a middle-order not exposed to Australian conditions and an inexperienced third seamer hands Australia the edge. From India’s perspective, some of these are a blessing in disguise.
An opportunity in injury
Rohit and Shikhar Dhawan form one of the best opening pairs in ODI cricket in the world, let alone for India. Left-right combination, an understanding between the role of the aggressor and the accumulator as per the situation, and the competence to play long innings make them the ideal ODI openers. But, they are not getting any younger.
When the next ODI World Cup takes place in October-November 2023, Dhawan will be 37 and Rohit 36. Ideally, it will be a perfect swansong for both of them. But, it will foolhardy to not be prepared for their absence which might arise due to form or fitness.
Given that KL Rahul has found his ODI method in the middle-order and with no other wicketkeeper-batsman knocking on the door, India have three options to test as potential substitutes. They are Mayank Agarwal, Shubman Gill and Prithvi Shaw. The first two are in the squad against Australia while pale returns in the IPL resulted in Shaw missing the bus.
In all likelihood, Mayank will walk out with Dhawan in the first ODI in Sydney. Past success in Australia in Test cricket will allow him to erase the memories from a dismal New Zealand tour and start afresh in his quest for white-ball success.
The usual questions
Since Yuvraj Singh faded away from the international scene, finding an equally competent player for a crucial role at number four has been a persistent struggle for India. After the debacle in the 2019 World Cup semi-final, they have given Shreyas Iyer a lengthy run. Averaging 53.8 in 11 innings, he has repaid the confidence.
However, in three innings against a stronger Aussie attack, he has only 55 runs to his name. As India set out to play tougher oppositions from here on, the real test for Iyer’s potential starts now.
The question marks around Hardik Pandya’s fitness to bowl makes Ravindra Jadeja as the only allrounder in the squad. Hence, he has a guaranteed spot in the XI. This results in a toss-up between Hardik and Manish Pandey for the number six spot. Given his affinity to boundary-hitting, Hardik should be the first choice for the place.
The bowling options
Hardik playing as a specialist batsman puts him and India in a quandary. The side will have only five-bowling options and Hardik will have to rely on only one suite to prove his worth. For now, the future of Hardik the bowler is hazy at best. Even a fit Hardik had a long road ahead to become a potent pacer. An injured Hardik making a comeback makes that journey tougher and uncertain.
In the spin department, there does not seem to be any method behind the preference of one over the other in the case of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav in ODIs. While Chahal seems like a sure-starter for now, Kuldeep offers the variety that balances well with Jadeja.
With Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s lingering struggle with injuries, India need a third-pacer to complement Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami. Based on his raw pace and better returns in comparison to Shardul Thakur in a short run for both, Navdeep Saini seems a better prospect.
It is payback time for the hosts
Australians are nursing a bruised ego since the 2018-19 series against India. They will leave no stone unturned to hurt India in all three formats. Nothing else explains a full-strength pace attack for the ODIs with the Test series looming.
With Steve Smith and David Warner back in the mix, they do not have a glaring hole in the squad - barring identifying the players better suited to be finishers. However, if they choose to rotate the three main quicks instead of playing them together, the drop in quality and experience might open a door for India to exploit.
If Australia field their best XI, India need a lot of variables to go their way to replicate the success of the previous tour.