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Taking stock ahead of the world cup


World_Cup_Countdown_86With hardly a few months to go before the world cup, the fans, commentators and experts from now on will inexplicably link every run scored and every ball bowled, regardless of the format, to the final 15 that should make the cut for cricket’s biggest show down under. We are no different.  

India, the defending champions, has comfortably outplayed Sri Lanka 5-0 in the recent series and this has thrown up a few interesting selection dilemmas for the selectors. Axar Patel and Ambati Rayudu have been impressive while the pace trio of Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron and Ishant Sharma troubled batsman with their pace and bounce on a helpful Cuttack track. The kind we can expect in Australia and New Zealand.

With Shikhar Dhawan back in form, he is almost nailed on to be the first choice opener. The decision to rest him was a good one considering the long season ahead. The question on who should be his partner is interesting however. Ajinkya Rahane looked sublime during his century in Cuttack and is seen as someone who is technically equipped to handle the pace and bounce in Australia. Rohit Sharma has thrown his hat back in the ring with probably one of the best ODI innings ever, the quality of pitch and opposition notwithstanding. But, Rahane has looked out of place batting in the middle and Rohit might just have to bat at number 4. With Kohli moving back up to 3, there are plenty of runs in that top order but what it lacks is a batsman who provides solidity right from the start. Rohit has been inconsistent right throughout his career and can't be trusted to provide solid starts game after game in a tournament like the world cup. Or will Dhoni do the unthinkable by asking Kohli to continue at 4 and give either Rahane or Rohit a go at 3? We will have to wait and watch.

The number 4 spot has a new contender in the form of Ambati Rayudu who has grabbed his chances. He never looks settled while on the pitch but gets the job done. It would be impossible to ignore him given his wicket keeping skills will come in handy in case Dhoni has to miss a game or two. I would be surprised if Yuvraj Singh does not feature in the selection discussions. He showed glimpses of getting back to his best during the IPL and you can always count on to Yuvraj deliver the goods in the big tournaments. But, he will have to prove his form and fitness through whatever cricket he can play during this period. Dhoni won’t mind having an in-form Yuvraj in the side. But it looks highly unlikely. Robin Uthappa is being touted as the back up to Dhoni but Rayudu is more than capable of doing the job with the gloves and he is likely to get the nod.

Since we can effectively rule out Dhoni stepping onto a cricket pitch without two specialist spinners in ODI’s, the tussle will be between Ashwin, Jadeja, Karn Sharma and Axar. While Ashwin will be first- choice, Jadeja can be expected to partner him due to his experience and all-round abilities. The selectors might go for Karn Sharma as third choice as a leg spinner is very important to lend variety to the attack as well as being a genuine wicket taking option in the huge Australian grounds. Remember how Piyush Chawla was picked out of nowhere to be part of the 2011 WC squad? Karn's selection in the test squad would give the captain and coach enough time to get a look at him. Axar will be hugely unlucky to miss out given his very impressive recent string of performances.

Bhuvneshwar with new ball and Shami with old ball have been magnificent recently and must rank pretty high in Dhoni’s list of priorities. Yadav and Ishant will both make the squad, but, it will be a straight shoot- out between the two to make it to the playing XI. Given the injury history, both of them are likely to play a part at some time during the tournament. Aaron though hugely exciting with his pace just hasn’t been consistent enough to earn a spot. Dhawal Kulkarni has shown enough promise to be a back-up.

The BCCI must look into possibility of keeping these fringe players match-fit by letting them train and play club games in Australia. This is what the squad can be expected to look like.

World Cup Probable 15: Rahane, Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Kohli, Dhoni, Raina, Rayudu, Jadeja, Ashwin, Karn Sharma, Bhuvi, Shami, Yadav, Ishant, Axar/Uthappa.

Another debate is if India should actually prioritize the world cup ahead of the test series down under. It would be interesting if the BCCI decides to rest a few players and rotate the squad during the test series in Australia to avoid burn-out leading up to the world cup. Knowing the Australian media there will be plenty to talk about. India in the past, though completely out-played in test series’ abroad, generally have bounced back well for the ODI’s. While the risk of carrying poor form from tests into the ODI’s might not be a great concern, the risk of injuries and burn-out remains high. Of particular concern is the pace battery. Pankaj Singh and Varun Aaron should feature prominently in the test tour plans to let Dhoni rotate his pace men and keep them fresh for the grueling schedule ahead. Dhoni should also look at playing KL Rahul/Robin Uthappa in at least two of the test matches to get a good look at them as well as rest some of the key batsmen.

It’s time for BCCI and Dhoni to take some tough calls. Even the most optimistic Indian fan is not expecting India to pull off a victory in the test series against Mitchell Johnson and co. Even the most pessimistic fan expects India to defend the title. Your move Dhoni.

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