India vs West Indies: ODI series a chance to fine-tune World Cup plans
Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli are no closer to identifying India's middle order or reserve opener. @Getty

With the clock ticking on their plans for the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup in England, the upcoming five ODIs versus West Indies are India’s last chance before mid-January to address some focal points in the format.

With the deadline to submit squads for the World Cup being April 23, the Indian team has still not locked in a middle order. Rishabh Pant has expectedly been included in India’s 14-man squad for the first two ODIs against West Indies, but whether he slots in as a pure batsman is not so straightforward.

With Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan the openers, there are four candidates vying for two spots: numbers four and six. Virat Kohli is back after skipping the Asia Cup, so the one-down position is taken and that leaves Ambati Rayudu and KL Rahul looking at No 4 and Pant and Manish Pandey at No 6.

Rayudu batted at No 3 during the Asia Cup and looked assured, so on that basis he appears the man to drop down a spot. Rahul got one game during the Asia Cup, as opener, and made 60. If the BCCI is looking at him as third opener for the World Cup, he will have to wait. Not having a fixed spot in ODIs has added to Rahul’s frustration, as he admitted during the Asia Cup, and how he slots in with Rohit, Dhawan, Kohli and Rayudu looking the preferred top four, with MS Dhoni at No 5, is tough to comprehend.

Is Manish Pandey India's No 6 for the World Cup?
Is Manish Pandey India’s No 6 for the World Cup? @AFP

The No 6 spot looks open for Pandey and Pant. Like Rahul, Pandey got just one game in the Asia Cup and made 8. That he has got the nod for the first two ODIs versus West Indies is indication enough that the selectors feel Pandey can play a role in the future, but he needs to seriously cash in on any opportunities. Pant’s Test form has enhanced his credentials, plus he is a rare left-hander in the batting lineup.

With Hardik Pandya sidelined with an injury sustained during the Asia Cup, Ravindra Jadeja slots in as the allrounder in the lower middle order, followed by four bowlers. Two of those will be the wrist-spinning pair of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, which leaves the management to pick two pace bowlers out of three. Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav are the seniors in the absence of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, and the third option is the rookie from Rajasthan, Khaleel Ahmed.

It is highly unlikely that India will take Jadeja to the World Cup, given how ineffective he was during the 2017 Champions Trophy in England. Jadeja managed four wickets in five matches, and while an economy rate of 5.92 can be considered decent, the fact that he struggled to take wickets could go against him. In three ODIs in England this summer Chahal took two wickets, but his economy was 4.50 and wristspin is viewed as far more viable option than left-arm spin. His success with Kuldeep as a pair ticks Chahal off as a near certainty for the World Cup.

Despite his recent call-up, Ravindra Jadeja is unlikely to travel to England.
Despite his recent call-up, Ravindra Jadeja is unlikely to travel to England. @AFP

With the selectors expected to bring back Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah as the series progresses, it is likely that the first two ODIs remain the main chance to see what Shami, who last played an ODI in September 2017, and Umesh, who has played two this year, have to offer India’s World Cup plans. Bhuvneshwar, Bumrah and Pandya appear the three likeliest first-choice names in England next summer but a busy calendar – the IPL ends ten days before India open their World Cup campaign – leaves the management with little choice but to rotate their resources.

India next play ODIs in Australia in January, followed by a trip across the Tasman to New Zealand, then a home series with Zimbabwe before the IPL. There is the need to keep players fresh, which means rotation is on the cards where India’s ODI schedule is concerned. It is not unthinkable that someone like Prithvi Shaw gets a look-in during the West Indies series.