VVSLaxman

India kick off a new series under a new skipper against a formidable England side that is fast establishing itself as one of the teams to beat in the shorter version of the game.

MS Dhoni’s decision to give up the reins of the 50-over and 20-over teams has thrust Virat Kohli into the hot seat across formats, and I am confident he will handle the responsibility of leading the Indian team in all versions with great enterprise and success. Virat has already stamped his character on the Test team, and I do not think it will be long before the limited-overs teams reflect the aggression and the positivity of the skipper as well.

These are the only three ODIs India play before the Champions Trophy in England in June, when they will attempt to successfully defend the title won in 2013 under MS. As such, these matches assume even greater importance than usual. India have not been able to maintain their dominance of Test cricket in the shorter versions, particularly in the last year or so, and therefore the first priority will be to embrace the consistency that has seen the Test team climb to the number one spot in the ICC rankings.

India’s last one-day outing was against New Zealand in October, a series India won 3-2 but were not convincing in doing so. New Zealand were competitive in the first four matches before fading away in Visakhapatnam when they were lured to their doom by Amit Mishra. What had concerned me most during that series was not so much India’s bowling as their batting. There was a tendency to be over-dependent on Virat, especially in pressure situations, and that is not the best sign. Good sides are those that seek for and procure contributions from several individuals. During the New Zealand series, every Indian win had a significant Virat hand. It is time for the others to put their hand up and ease some of the burden off the skipper.

Of course, there are several changes in personnel, both in the batting front and in the bowling department, from that series. Ajinkya Rahane must have been disappointed at not making the most of getting to open the batting in the absence of KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan, who are both back in the mix now. Even though Rahane made attractive runs against the Englishmen in the warm-up game in Mumbai, my first-choice opening pair will be Rahul and Shikhar — Rahul for the obvious success he has had in the last 10 months, Shikhar for his experience and the novelty of the left-hand option.

MS at number four behind Virat is the ideal combination because not only these two bat well together, but at two-drop, MS will also get the chance to build an innings at this stage of his career when the big hits are not as readily forthcoming as they used to until a couple of years back. It is good to see Yuvraj back in the reckoning in the 50-over game, and he provides the experience and the muscle the middle-order has required in recent times.

The number six slot is a toss-up between Manish Pandey and Kedar Jadhav; my choice would be Jadhav. Pandey will be kicking himself for letting himself and the team down against the Kiwis while Jadhav did nothing wrong, making useful, quick and attractive runs and delivering crucial blows with the ball. Virat will welcome the additional bowling options that he and Yuvi bring, even though there is greater depth and penetration in the Indian ranks with the return of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.

It is the number seven spot in the batting order that interests me hugely. For a long time now, India have depended on MS, Yuvraj and Suresh Raina to occupy those slots, but I think the time has come to invest elsewhere with an eye on the future. To me, it is Jadhav at six and Hardik Pandya at seven at most times, unless there is a need to push a left-hander up. In that case Jadeja can come in at seven. Going forward, India need specialists at these two crucial slots, men who can strike the ball fiercely, bat with intelligence and craft, and run well between the wickets, and between Jadhav, Pandey, Pandya and Jadeja, they have the trappings of four good finishers.

India’s bowling will have to be on top of its game against an explosive English line-up. The brand of cricket England have played since their elimination in the league phase of the 2015 World Cup has been exhilarating and based around all-out aggression. They have identified the players and backed them staunchly, and the results are there for all to see.

Alex Hales and Jason Roy are as dynamic an opening pair as any; Joe Root, who has rejoined the team, can control the innings from number three; and Eoin Morgan and Moeen Ali provide the experience and the solidity in the middle order. They are followed by two of the best finishers in the modern game, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler. So formidable and full of riches is the England batting order that they will be hard-pressed to find a place for the impressive Sam Billings and Jonny Bairstow. England have shown in the last 18 months that no target is beyond them and no ground too big for them. This will be a good test of the skills and the character of the Indian bowling group.

In saying that, England have their own issues with the bowling too. There is a lack of experience and penetration. Contrary to the past, it appears as if good tracks designed to please the crowds in the form of tall totals is what we are likely to get in Pune, Cuttack and Kolkata. England have shown a propensity to go for plenty if there is no help from the conditions, and there is no great quality or guile in the spinning department.

In many ways, this series could turn out to be a battle of the batsmen and the team chasing might always have the advantage. It should be a closely contested, entertaining series, but I would back India for the greater variety, versatility and experience in their bowling ranks.