It doesn’t come as a surprise anymore that, just three days after completing a gruelling four-Test series, two of the top teams in the world are squaring off in a three-match ODI showdown. Equally unsurprisingly, this face-off between India and Australia, beginning at the Wankhede Stadium on Friday (March 17) isn’t significant on its own steam, but because of the ‘context’ surrounding it.
50-over skirmish post gruelling Test
Context has become the byword in world cricket these days. It was to lend that perspective to the longer format that the World Test Championship was introduced in 2019. Incidentally, India and Australia will lock horns in the final of the second WTC from June 7 in London, too.
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The context for this 50-over skirmish, to be played out inside a week, is the World Cup, to be staged in India this October-November. Any and every 50-over match between now and October will be viewed against the prism of the quadrennial extravaganza, for which India have qualified by virtue of being the hosts and Australia have secured qualification by virtue of 12 wins from 18 matches, even if they currently only occupy the sixth position in the World Cup Super League table.
India and Australia haven’t played each other in an One-Day International since November 2020, in a three-match series which was the precursor to India’s epochal 2-1 Test series triumph Down Under. This long gap can be put down to the preponderance of T20 cricket – there have been two World Cups in that version in the last 17 months – but as if to make up for lost time, the old foes will meet in two three-match series over the next seven months, both in India, as they fine tune their preparations for the World Cup.
Contest of equals
That this is a contest of equals is further evidenced by the fact that India are the No. 1-ranked ODI side in the world and Australia occupy the second spot. There’s little to choose between them – Australia will be without regular skipper Pat Cummins and pace ace Jhye Richardson while India, still reconciling to life without Jasprit Bumrah since last September, have been deprived in the last week of the services of middle-order stalwart Shreyas Iyer, out with a lower back injury.
Australia are welcoming back a host of established names recovering from injuries of various kinds. Glenn Maxwell, Mitchell Marsh and David Warner rank the foremost among them, the latter having exited the Test tour at the midway stage after picking up a hairline fracture in his unprotected left elbow in the second Test in New Delhi. Warner had a torrid time in the two Tests he played and his form in the five-day game has been poor over the last year and more, but he is a different prospect in the limited-overs game.
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Appointed skipper of Delhi Capitals for IPL 2023 following the terrible road accident to designated captain Rishabh Pant, the left-hander will be determined to redeem himself in the Green and Gold and hit a purple patch ahead of the T20 slam-bang tournament, which he lorded for nearly a decade but where his form has dramatically nosedived in the last three years.
Both teams have most bases covered and have a fair idea of what their World Cup 15s will look like, all other things being equal. But it is the possible inequality of all other things that will force them to identify and groom potential replacements if one or more of their preferred first-choices become unavailable for one reason or the other.
It’s certain that Pant will take no part in the World Cup. While India would have loved to have been in a position to requisition the wicketkeeper-batsman’s explosiveness, the dichotomy between his Test and ODI records is stark. He was just beginning to do justice to his unfettered aggression in the 50-over game when the cruel hand of fate struck towards the end of last year; India must now decide who should don the big gloves and prepare accordingly.
On the face of it, that would appear quite straightforward, given that (wk) appeared alongside only Ishan Kishan’s name when the 18-man squad was announced on February 19. It was only in December that Kishan joined the short list of India double-centurions in ODIs in Bangladesh – opener Shubman Gill subsequently gate-crashed into that group this January against New Zealand – but Kishan’s exploits came at the top of the order, where there is a logjam with Gill having established himself as Rohit Sharma’s opening partner. Rohit will miss the Mumbai game due to family commitments and Kishan might walk out alongside Gill on the morrow, but in the longer term, his batting role will be in the middle order, where he doesn’t have either the experience or the track record of one of the most discussed names in Indian cricket in the last six months.
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KL Rahul’s sustained run of poor scores, allied with his hesitant, timid presence at the batting crease, finally ushered him out of the Test side for the last two games against Australia. Once the vice-captain across formats, Rahul doesn’t enjoy that luxury or safety net anymore – Hardik Pandya will lead on Friday in Rohit’s absence – but maybe that isn’t the worst thing. Rahul is at home in the role of an explosive middle-order force in the ODI, particularly so when he occupies the wicketkeeper’s role, and it will be interesting to see who the team management entrust the stumper’s duties to, both with and without Rohit in the XI.
Iyer’s injury, untimely and disruptive, could bring Suryakumar Yadav into sharper focus. For all his mastery of the T20 variant where he is in a league of his own, Suryakumar hasn’t quite taken to ODIs as expected. The opportunity to play three games in a row, to find his feet and back his own game, is perhaps just the opening he requires to make himself ‘undroppable’, because he brings to the table a certain brazen unorthodoxy that makes setting fields a horribly impossible proposition.
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India have other areas to fill, not least a second medium-paced all-rounder to complement Pandya. Shardul Thakur will look to make that place his own, but unless he makes up for profligacy with penetrativeness, that’s far from a done deal.
So many subtexts within the larger script, so many mini battles within the larger war. Should be fun.