Virat Kohli’s India concede series in pursuit of fringe benefits
Virat Kohli has a few issues to sort out ahead of the World Cup. © Getty

And just like that, India’s 2-0 lead in the five-match ODI series against Australia was first closed down, then erased, and then overturned in a matter of a week, culminating in a 35-run loss at the Feroz Shah Kotla on Wednesday night.

If one were to draw parallels, the UEFA Champions League fixture between Paris St Germain and Manchester United over two legs went down in a similar vein. In the case of India though, advantages were surrendered at different, yet definitive stages of the series.

Australia celebrated a series victory after a turbulent year in the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner, and without bowling spearheads Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, as their replacements Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb gave the selectors a welcome headache, while Adam Zampa and Nathan Lyon masterfully out-bowled and out-spun India’s specialist spinners at their own game, on their own turf. (VIDEO: Khawaja, Zampa star as Australia stun India)

Captain Virat Kohli was unwavering in his defence of selection experiments, as the team management seems more than convinced about the team that is going to be playing at the ICC World Cup in England in a couple of months. The tinkering of the side, in Kohli’s view, was more to give the fringe players a taste of the pressures that may have to deal with in bigger games to come. And barring Vijay Shankar’s performances with bat and ball, there were more questions than answers that emerged from this series. (READ: Talking points: Australian tail wags, Indian middle order sags)

Vijay Shankar appears to done enough to seal his World Cup berth
Vijay Shankar appears to done enough to seal his World Cup berth. (IANS)

“As a side, combination-wise, we are pretty sorted condition-based,” Kohli said at the press conference after Wednesday’s final ODI. “Maximum one change, you’ll get to see condition-based. But other than that, the XI we want to play, we are pretty clear about it.” Kohli acknowledged that the changes made to the side over the five games may have played a part in the results, but also pointed out that “the idea was to give the guys on the bench and the fringe guys a bit of game time as well and just put them in those positions and see how they react.” (READ: No excuses, we’re expected to raise our standard of cricket: Kohli)

Across the ODI series, questions grew louder over who bats for India at No 4 at the World Cup, particularly after the three-game run Ambati Rayudu received, but the batsman underwhelmed with his run, prompting the management to promote Shankar in one game, and Rishabh Pant in the last fixture. By Kohli’s admission, it was just an experiment, but India have largely struggled with their No 4 position throughout the season as Rayudu’s numbers haven’t quite supported the extended run he has been given. (READ: 2019 World Cup tracker: India suffer shock loss)

Even Kohli himself has on occasion taken up the role, with a fair number of his supporters calling for the Indian captain to drop down to that position at the quadrennial event, which doesn’t quite make sense. Kohli’s incredible past record and irresistible form has seen him race to India’s third-highest run-getter in the shorter format largely from the No 3 spot, and he remains the strongest contender to launch India’s batting efforts from that position. Even the thought of making KL Rahul bat at No. 3 to drop Kohli down the order is just as ludicrous given the opening pair’s recent inconsistencies. (READ: Onus on players to manage IPL workload: Kohli)

Kohli has backed Kedar Jadhav's bowling, but the part-timer had a poor series.
Kohli has backed Kedar Jadhav’s bowling, but the part-timer had a poor series. © AFP
AFP

Despite better returns with the ball in recent months, marshalling the middle overs have continued to pose problems for Kohli, with the absence of a fifth bowler hurting the team’s chances. Kedar Jadhav’s continuously falling right arm makes for entertaining viewing, but 76 runs in seven wicketless overs through the course of this series pose questions over how India manage the middle overs in what would be tough conditions for spinners.

India did miss the services of the injured Hardik Pandya, but Shankar’s inclusion, and indeed his emergence, have given them the cushion for a like-for-like replacement, but both of them finding a place in the XI at the same time remains an unlikely proposition.

Ravindra Jadeja and the ever-consistent Kuldeep Yadav combined for terrific displays with the ball throughout the course of the series, but conditions in England will more or less ensure only two out of the three will find a place, and with R Ashwin not having figured in the blue ODI jersey since 2017, he seems to be on the brink of missing the flight to England.

So impressive have Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami been over the past year that despite the reputation of fast bowling being the weakest link for the Indian team, it has emerged their strongest, and the most bankable suit. And as the World Cup hopefuls get inundated with their IPL duties beginning March 23, the pressures of the World Cup will take a backseat, only to rear its head in May.

Pruning the list of probables down to World Cup candidates, however, should remain a straightforward decision. Whether or not it papers over the cracks, only time will tell.