World Cup auditions as good as over

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Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli during the team’s Australia tour pre-departure press conference at the BCCI headquarters in Mumbai. (Source: PTI)

Something momentous has been promised by Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri — that they won’t chop and change anymore until the world cup. It’s against their grain, but starting with the T20 against Australia on Wednesday in Brisbane, India will field their best eleven. “From now on obviously it is going to be much more difficult for others to step in unless there’s any sort of workload issue because till the World Cup we want our XI that’s going to play together to play as long as possible and together in as many number of games because there’s not many left,” Kohli said a day before the game. A similar sentiment was echoed by Shastri a day before they flew to Australia.

It means a few things: Khaleel Ahmed, the left-arm seamer mentored by Zaheer Khan will get a consistent run to prove himself; Umesh Yadav would have to wait for an injury to get in; Krunal Pandya will get opportunities and if he does well in the T20 series, would he get ahead of Ravindra Jadeja in the ODI squad, which is yet to be named; Manish Pandey might not last too long in the squad and Rishabh Pant will play as a keeper, which means Dinesh Kartik needs to get cracking on consistently as a batsman if he wants to hang on to his spot in T20.

Considering the world cup is around the corner, it probably would have made more sense had the two countries shelved the T20 series for an extended ODI series but this T20 series would give India, who would start as favourites, to settle the team.

The bowling looks to be in much better shape than it has been in the past. Starting with Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah with the new ball. While Bumrah is a natural fit, with his action, bowling style, and his attitude, it’s astounding to see the development of Bhuvneshwar in the shortest format. How often has a medium pace swing bowler, the version he started with, has gone on to develop his arsenal so much (Yorkers, effective bouncers, slower cutters) that he seems almost a natural in this format.

Kohli hit the right note on what makes his new-ball bowlers stand out. It’s their ability to anticipate what the batsmen might do, a key skill that determines a bowler’s success in this frenetic format. “Reason why both of them have been good is because they’re thinking bowlers – they understand the situation and get a gut feel of what a batsman is looking to do before they’re going to bowl. And the ability to kind of predict what’s going to happen on each ball is what keeps them a step ahead of the batsmen most of the time. Sometimes they will get dominated like everyone does, but I think 85-90% of the times they’re spot on and that’s because they’re always looking at how the game is going, how the batsmen are batting, what areas they’re hitting, and what are the balls they need to execute in difficult situations. So I think that’s been their strength.”

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It’s something that Krunal Pandya too does well. Time and again, in the IPL, we have seen him amp up his game in pressure situations. He can contain effectively but the best thing about him is that he doesn’t just see himself as a restrictive bowler – something that many spinners make the mistake of doing in this format. He can turn the ball and has learnt to use the angles really well. Even with the bat, Mumbai Indians have promoted him on occasions under pressure, ahead of the likes of Keiron Pollard, and more often than not, he has come through them well. It won’t be a surprise if he manages to do well, and push for a spot in the 50-over squad as well.

Kuldeep Yadav is another spinner in the new mould that India have been looking for: an attacking bowler who has the discipline to be restrictive in situations that demand it. He is of course more attacking than Pandya, and considering Yuzvinder Chahal has been nominated as the 12th man, Yadav will have to learn to attack more than usual and also gel well with Pandya.

During the West Indies series, Khaleel showed that he has the brains too and that he doesn’t just run in and deliver his variations. The way he set up Marlon Samuels with a series of inswingers before pushing one across fuller to induce an edge was special. A left-handed seamer is something Indian team management has been craving for a while now, and if he can continue to evolve in this T20 series, it would stand India good in the world cup.
The batting is pretty good but there are two spots that India would keenly watch this series. The performances of KL Rahul and Dinesh Kartik. Rahul finds himself in a strange space: a feature in Tests and T20 but doesn’t find a spot in the ODIs.

It would be interesting to see how he goes here. Kartik did comeback strongly with his match-winning performance in Sri Lanka and his performances overseas would be keenly watched.

He has let slip many a golden opportunity in the past – even recently, he failed to grab the Test spot offered to him ahead of Rishabh Pant in England. Would he manage to hold on to his T20 spot?

Since it’s a series in Australia, the talk would continue to hover around definitions of aggression and its limits. Kohli offered his summation on the topic on Tuesday. “Aggression depends on how the situation is on field. If the opposition is aggressive towards you then you counter it. India is not a team that starts anything but we always draw a line of self-respect. If that line is crossed we stand up to that. Aggression also means that within team how possessive you are to that situation and as a team how much effort you are putting in for each wicket. You can see that in body language, when bowlers bowl and how long they can keep hitting the same area.

“Batsmen can be aggressive without saying anything. For me aggression is playing to win and an obsession that I should win every ball for my team. Everyone has a different meaning but for me it means to win the game at any costs and give 120 per cent for my team, whether I am fielding or even clapping for someone while sitting on the bench, or batting, or running between wickets.”

All good points but time will tell how the two teams walk the talk on field.
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