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    Written by Jamie Alter

    With 2023 World Cup looming, India have issues to sort out

    March 16, 2023

    When was the last time that a near full strength Indian men’s cricket team turned up for three ODIs at home, a mere five days after a grueling series of four Test matches, and just two weeks before the start of an IPL season?

    Yes, think about that for a moment.

    It is indeed rare to see India’s top cricketers played a three-ODI bilateral series between formats in a crammed calendar, but this is, after all, a home World Cup year. No replacement captain – though Hardik Pandya will lead in the first game versus Australia in Mumbai on Friday because Rohit Sharma is missing that match for a family function – and no Shreyas Iyer due to a recurrence of his back injury during the final BGT Test, but otherwise this is as close to India’s 2023 ODI World Cup squad as you will see. With no timeline on Jasprit Bumrah’s return and Rishabh Pant out for a long time, India’s squad for these three ODIs offer a peek into how matters might look in six months’ time when the World Cup starts.

    And yet, there are cracks for all to see. And questions that need to be addressed soon and gaps to be plugged, starting with these three ODIs with Australia.

    Barring Mohammed Siraj, ranked No 1 in ODIs by the ICC, no Indian pace bowler is in their prime and this is problematic. It raises the question: will India depend as much on pace at the World Cup as they might on spin, given the uncertainty over Bumrah, the age and fitness of Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav, the inconsistency of Shardul Thakur, the inexperience of Umran Malik, the T20I workload of Arshdeep Singh, the rustiness of Jaydev Unadkat who played all seven of his career ODIs in 2013 and the fitness of Prasidh Krishna?

    If the Indian team management plans to use spinners more given it is a home World Cup, then who are they? And are they allrounders? If India intend to lean towards specialist spinners, then beyond Kuldeep Yadav, who in five ODIs in 2023 has claimed 11 wickets while conceding runs at 5.08 per over, and Yuzvendra Chahal, who has gone off the boil a bit, there are no visible candidates. Ravichandran Ashwin did not play an ODI from June 2017 to January 2022 and has not gotten a look-in since then, so it is safe to assume that the team has moved on from him.

    That leaves the spin-bowling allrounders in Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel and Washington Sundar as the leading candidates for the World Cup. Jadeja has pedigree and experience, but due to rest and injury he has played just two ODIs in the past two years. The biggest benefactor of this is Axar, who has found a lot more playing time – he was out of ODIs from 2017 to 2022 – and since his comeback has taken 11 wickets from 12 matches with a terrific economy rate of 4.50, apart from scoring 200 runs at an average of 33. Washington, when he has not been injured or down with COVID, has been a regular in ODIs since he was recalled in February of 2022 and has played 16 of the 27 matches India have in that time, with a bowling economy of five and a strike-rate of 32.

    But only two of these three can fit into India’s XI, so choices have to be made as much on wicket-taking skill as middle-order batting. Six months out from the World Cup, competition in this department is stiff and performances will be judged with a lot more weightage.

    Regarding the batting, with Shubman Gill following a very strong 2022 in ODIs (648 runs at 70.88, strike-rate 102.57) with a superb 2023 so far (567 runs at 113.40, strike-rate 126.28 with two centuries and a double) has ensured he will open the innings, even if we account for any drop of form from now until October. But who is India’s third opener?

    The team seems to have moved on from Shikhar Dhawan, who last year scored 688 runs from 22 ODIs at an average of 34.40 but more worryingly, at a strike-rate of 74.21. Sanju Samson comes and goes and Ruturaj Gaikwad can’t get a game. Ishan Kishan slammed the fastest double century in men’s ODIs the last time he opened in the format, but since then he has batted in the middle order in three subsequent matches with scores of 5, 8* and 17. With KL Rahul owning a very good ODI record when batting at No 5, and the team’s determination to get him to keep wickets, Kishan’s chances of playing hinge on whether someone is rested or injured.

    Now with Iyer out of this series, the problematic No 4 slot continues to trouble India in a World Cup year. Iyer was India’s leading run-getter in ODIs last year, but now that he won’t play these three matches, and with no clarity about when he will return, the team has to find his replacement. Prima facie, it seems that Suryakumar Yadav, who otherwise struggles to get into India’s first-choice ODI team despite his outstanding success in T20Is, has three matches to improve on a poor record.

    In 18 ODI innings, Suryakumar averages 28. His start in 2021 was promising, with scores of 31*, 53, 39, 34, 64* and 6 in his first two series, but he has not crossed 34* in 10 subsequent innings. Even if Iyer’s absence for the Australia series gives Suryakumar a chance, India still need to identify another candidate for the No 4 slot. And if Suryakumar fails in these three ODIs, do India stick with him in the hope that he can be as destructive as he is in T20Is?

    While India’s home dominance is undisputed and playing the World Cup at home gives them the advantage, we all know that results are one thing and getting the team combination is quite another matter. Hence these three ODIs, which in another year would flow under the radar with the selectors picking a roster of fringe players, stand as pivotal in India’s route to the World Cup in October.


    About the Author

    Written by Jamie Alter

    Jamie Alter is a sports journalist, author, commentator, anchor, actor, and YouTuber who has covered multiple cricket World Cups and other major sporting events while working with ESPNcricinfo, Cricbuzz, Network 18, the Zee Group and as Digital Sports Editor of the Times of India. Follow Jamie on Twitter, Youtube and Instagram.

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