Friday will mark the return of India’s cricketers to international action after their longest break in recent times. The first of the three one-day internationals in Sydney against Australia comes almost nine months since their last engagement — the Christchurch Test against New Zealand. The unprecedented gap is in keeping with these uncertain times, when life as we have known it has turned upside down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This second full tour of Australia in three years is significant on numerous counts. For the first time since early 2012, India will have to make do without Virat Kohli for three Tests in a row; it’s increasingly looking unlikely that Rohit Sharma will be available at all, the thick shroud of mystery surrounding his rehabilitation from a hamstring injury gathering layers by the minute.
The Test series will unforgivingly scrutinise India’s fortitude, but before they move to pink- and red-ball face-offs lie the six white-ball fixtures. Contextually, these outings — three in the 50-over format, the rest in the 20-over variant — don’t carry the same weightage as the five-day version, yet they offer a springboard from which India can soar in future.
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It’s been seven-and-a-half years since an Indian captain wrapped his hands around global white-ball silverware. Their defeat of England in a rain-hit 20-over final of the 50-over Champions Trophy in June 2013 was India’s last notable limited-overs accomplishment. Subsequently, they made the final of the World T20 in 2014 and the Champions Trophy in 2017, as well as the semifinal of the 2016 World T20 and the 2015 and 2019 World Cups. That’s a grand show of consistency, but being involved in the business end of competitions holds only that much water when the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow remains elusive.
All else being equal, cricket will witness three World Cups over the next two-and-a-half years — T20 editions in 2021 and 2022, and the 50-over flagship event the following spring, the tournament in Australia sandwiched between high-voltage action in India. Surely, the next fortnight Down Under should act as the first stepping stone towards identifying requirements, if not personnel, for the T20 World Cup, and charting the roadmap towards reclaiming the 50-over World Cup last won at home in 2011?
Past misadventures are too fresh in memory to warrant repetition, not least in England last year when India sold themselves short with questionable selection calls. They did mount a spirited campaign, fuelled by five hundreds from Rohit, but when it came to the crunch, they floundered against New Zealand in the last four. The troublesome No. 4 position, bizarrely tinkered with once Ambati Rayudu was forsaken at the last minute for the ‘three-dimensional’ Vijay Shankar, came back to bite them where it hurt most. Flexible as limited-overs middle-order make-ups must be, the two-drop position is situationally pivotal. India did themselves no favours by starting with KL Rahul and ending with Dinesh Karthik, a host of others occupying the slot in between. Their addled thinking ahead of team selection manifested itself in the semifinal defeat when a more settled, stable and familiar hand would have been better equipped to steer the ship out of choppy waters.
Little purpose will be served by harping on what’s gone before; prudence dictates that lessons be learnt and decisions firmed up. That there is clarity of thought and purpose to action. That first, second and sometimes third choices are identified for each element of the squad, and given incremental game-time so that there is more than just a sense of preparedness by the time of the World Cups.
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The holes to be plugged, in both white-ball variants, are too many. Victories in the short-term will gloss over these lacunae, but in the cauldron of high-octane knockout play, there are no second chances. That’s why attention to the minutest detail becomes non-negotiable.
First up, the elephant in the room. Rohit Sharma. With due respect to Kohli, possibly the most influential batsman in the limited-overs set-up. When he is fit and firing, he has no peer. But Rohit has spent plenty of time in the infirmary in the last three years through non-cricketing, fitness-related injuries. He is a priceless jewel in India’s glittering batting crown, but will his protesting body cooperate? By the time of the 50-over World Cup, Rohit will be 36, hardly old for a batsman. But the risk of injuries will continue to mount with each passing day, the recovery period will be that much stretched. It’s too early, one might say, to take a definitive call on Rohit the 50-over opener, but the think-tank must have contingency plans in place, just in case.
Other must-address issues revolve around a medium-paced all-rounder — the early promise shown by Hardik Pandya lies flat on the ground, a pricked balloon devoid of air, following his own trysts with injuries to the back and side that have taken one dimension out of his arsenal. Pandya is explosive enough to command a place as a batsman and crack fielder alone, but if he is an iffy bowler, the hunt for someone who can give six overs in ODIs or at least two in T20s must intensify. As it is, India have no one in the top six to fall back on for even a token over or so. Perhaps the intent must be as much on trying to unearth specialist batsmen who can bowl, as getting the likes of Shreyas Iyer and his ilk to bowl regularly in the nets and then gradually in matches so that the skipper has some insurance to fall back on in a crisis.
Success is a fickle mistress, disappearing in the bat of an eyelid. Despite one’s best efforts, it hardly comes wrapped with an iron-clad guarantee. All India can do is plan and prepare, ready for any eventuality, cover all bases. This is as good a time as any to kick-start that process.