MS Dhoni returns to lead India in the ODI series after he had announced his retirement from Tests couple of weeks back © Getty Images
MS Dhoni returns to lead India in the ODI series after he had announced his retirement from Tests couple of weeks back © Getty Images

Jan 17, 2015

All set to defend their World Cup crown in less than a month, India will get their preparations underway with the aim of finding the right combination for the marquee event when they take on Australia in their opening match of the ongoing One-Day International (ODI) tri-series on January 18 at Melbourne. Read our preview here

While this tri-series provides the perfect setting for experimentation, the need of the hour is to get a settled combination going ahead to instill confidence in the side. In the recently-concluded Test series, these same set of players did compete well despite a 0-2 score-line saying otherwise. However, the change in format cannot be negated and there will always be a few cobwebs to be cleared.

Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni will return to international cricket after a little over two weeks since his Test retirement at the same venue, and he will have some decisions to make. The first order of business will be to make a firm choice about the opening combination.

With less than a month to go before their opening World Cup encounter against Pakistan in Adelaide, it is worrisome that India’s openers are yet unknown. Ahead of Sunday’s game, the team management has failed to specify whether it will be Ajinkya Rahane or Rohit Sharma pairing up with Shikhar Dhawan at the top of the order, or indeed whether a third possibly-surprising combination might be thrown up.

The choice of openers will have an effect on the rest of the batting order as well. If Rahane opens with Dhawan, where will Rohit fit in? Indeed, if Rohit opens the innings, will Rahane return to number four, a position he has not been comfortable with. Or, will Virat Kohli be moved down a spot from his favoured number three, a move he experimented with while leading the side at home against Sri Lanka?

Unlike the team’s preparations ahead of any Test match, their net-sessions for an ODI do not throw up any suggestive patterns and it was the same on Saturday as well. In no particular order then, all batsmen enjoyed a decent hit in the nets including Ambati Rayudu and Stuart Binny Both of them will be hoping to play a definitive role during this tournament and increase their chances for the World Cup.

Among the bowlers, playing two spinners is definitely par for the course for India, with Ravichandran Ashwin and Akshar Patel slated to take up those spots.

Ravindra Jadeja is still some distance away from full fitness. Meanwhile, Ishant Sharma too has been ruled out of this match with the management not willing to risk him at this stage in light of his left-knee niggle. It remains to be seen whether Bhuvneshwar Kumar will make the cut given his not-so-impressive showing in the Sydney Test.

He bowled well below his regular pace in that match and appeared lacking in match-fitness. The onus will be on getting him in rhythm as soon as possible, but there are also other options available. Mohit Sharma and Dhawal Kulkarni are in the tri-series 17-man squad, and have been confirmed as back-up options for the World Cup, should one of the chosen bowlers break down.

And so, the team management will be keen to rely on them and manage others’ workload. While India are placed second in the latest ICC ODI rankings, they do not have an impressive showing in this format on their past three overseas tours. They have only won three out of 12 matches played, all of them coming against an English ODI side in a state of free-fall at this moment.

In five out of six losses then, where conditions were pretty much equivalent to the upcoming World Cup, India conceded 359 and 281 in Africa, and 293, 293 and 304 against New Zealand. The one time they batted first versus the Kiwis and lost, they couldn’t defend a 278-run target at Hamilton. In the one-off tied match at Auckland too they conceded 315 runs.

This just goes to show that the shortcomings of India’s bowling aren’t restricted to the overseas Test arena alone. Having tasted immense success against India this summer, Australia will once again be looking to make a meal out of this attack. The hosts have already taken an early march in the tournament after beating England by three wickets in Sydney on January 16.

Their batting order is replete with big-hitters who are proven names in the IPL circles and only know their opponents’ weaknesses too well. How Dhoni’s bowlers joust with the likes of David Warner, Aaron Finch, Shane Watson, Steven Smith, Glenn Maxwell and James Faulkner in this limited-overs setting over a span atleast two matches in the next couple weeks will set the tone for the next two months.

Playing back-to-back matches, for the hosts, it will be about gaining momentum and even more confidence under George Bailey’s leadership in case Michael Clarke doesn’t recover in time for the World Cup. Even at this early stage in the tri-series, another win should give Australia a firm hand on a spot in the final at Perth on February 1, leaving India and England to fight it out between them.