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India: Mission 2019

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India_Strategy_CricketIn sport, as in many walks of life, one has to have a plan of succession in place. One has to plan for the future. This is true of all sports, but particularly in a cricket team that needs an ideal blend of youth and experience.

In Test cricket, it is easier to plan ahead with the gradual phasing out (or sudden ouster) of seniors while blooding youngsters in their place. The ODI World Cup takes place once every 4 years. Teams start planning for it at least 2 and a half years in advance, and try out new players, taking into account the conditions in the country/countries where the imminent World Cup will be played. In 2019, England will host the next edition of the tournament.

In a settled and a successful team, most of the players pick themselves, leaving only three or four spots up for grabs. different players need to be tried out to fill the remaining slots and as backup to the regulars in order to complete the squad of 15. To achieve this, teams look at the long-term perspective; they are prepared to lose a few games in the short term in order to try out new players and identify their best playing XI.

In the Indian team, players like Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Hardik Pandya, Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal are all automatic selections.

Currently, there is a lot of concern over the number 4 position. But India cannot afford to keep tinkering with their combination in the current ODI series against South Africa without worrying about the result, saying that they are planning for the 2019 World Cup in England.

India have never won a bilateral ODI series in South Africa in their 4 previous attempts. They have also been on a roll in bilateral ODI series since their 4-1 loss to Australia in January 2016, winning 8 bilateral series on the trot. This is arguably their best chance to break their series drought in ODIs in South Africa.

Moreover, a loss in the ODI series against the Proteas could dent their morale and cause doubts in the minds of the players. The conditions in South Africa, favouring pace bowlers with pronounced seam movement on certain pitches, may not be too dissimilar to those in England. Therefore, these conditions are an ideal dress rehearsal for the World Cup that will let the team management and the players know where they stand.

There are a few areas in which India need to experiment before fine tuning their squad for the 2019 World Cup. They will need to select at least 4 pace bowlers in addition to Hardik Pandya for the mega-event in England. Therefore, they need to give Shardul Thakur an extended run to find out if he has the goods rather than just letting him warm the bench while playing the established bowlers all the time.

Bowlers like Mohammed Siraj, Umesh Yadav and even Mohammed Shami are not certainties for the event. The management needs to be wise and strike a balance between winning the South Africa series and giving exposure to the fringe players.

For the last 2 years, India have been so far ahead of their opposition in ODIs that they prefer to win the series before trying out the debutants and untested players. However, the Proteas are formidable at home and it will only be an incurable optimist who expects India to win the 6-match series 4-0 before trying out Shardul and Shreyas Iyer.

India have made a bold statement a few months back, saying that they were willing to back wrist spinners who were capable of getting wickets, dropping Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja from the squad. That move seems to have paid dividends, though they should bring back Ravindra Jadeja rather than discard him on the basis of a couple of poor series. This is, of course, assuming that they select 3 spinners in their 15-man squad for England.

Even in the opening position, they are faced with a conundrum. A few months ago, they said that they were looking at Rahane purely as a back-up opener, as they felt he struggled to rotate the strike in the middle overs. And yet, for all 3 ODIs played so far, he has batted in the middle order at the crucial number 4 position; the rationale being that he already played the 2015 World Cup as a middle order batsman.

They experimented with KL Rahul in the middle order and that didn’t work out. Since Rahul opens in Tests, it might make sense to try him out as an opener as he is too good a player to be cooling his heels on the bench or back home.

If Kohli can consider Rahane for the middle order, then he and the management need to do the same for Rahul as well, and give him a chance at opening the batting.

The number 4 batting position has been the topic of many polarized debates. India have tried as many as 10 different players at the spot since the conclusion of the 2015 World Cup. If they do not plan to include a specialist finger spinner in their playing XI in England, then Kedar Jadhav becomes the ideal candidate. He can roll his arm over, bowling off breaks, giving the team much needed cover in the spin department. That might give him an edge over Shreyas Iyer, Dinesh Karthik and Manish Pandey

The team management and the selectors need to be on the same page and identify the lacunae and the boxes left unticked before they finalize their squad. While the event is 16 months away, there are not many ODIs left where they can experiment before choosing a balanced 15-member squad.

But first things first, India need to win the series against South Africa while trying to fix the weak links and choose their 4 best pace bowlers.

 

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