Nagraj GollapudiDeputy editor at ESPNcricinfo
Before the cricket world turns its gaze IPL-wards starting March 23, there is one key limited-overs series that India will play, at home, against Australia. Comprising two T20Is and five ODIS, it starts on February 23 and runs through March 13. India, as the senior selection committee chairman MSK Prasad said recently, have nearly sealed the 15 World Cup spots. There is “one odd” berth left to fill and plenty of players vying for it.
On Friday, Prasad’s panel will meet in Mumbai to pick the squads for the Australian series, giving a possible hint at the player(s) that are likely to travel to England.
Going by form and experience, 13 men pick themselves up: Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Ambati Rayudu, MS Dhoni, Hardik Pandya, Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Bhuvneshar Kumar, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah. That leaves two spots to firm up.
Specialist batsman or allrounder?
If the selectors and the team management opt to go with a fourth specialist fast bowler – like Khaleel Ahmed – that leaves one seat vacant.
Could it be KL Rahul‘s? He was being looked at a back-up opener or, given his talent and ability to score quickly, a makeshift middle-order bat. Then came a dip in form and the suspension for his behavior on an Indian talk show.
Rahul has since returned to playing and has scored two eighty-plus scores in the ongoing unofficial Tests against the England Lions. But will runs against an A team be enough to push him up the pecking order, especially considering Rishabh Pant and Vijay Shankar have been doing it in international cricket?
Pant might have made his name with his explosive batting, but what has impressed the selectors and team management is his composure. Following a good run with India A last year, he struck a very polished hundred in the New Year’s Test against Australia in Sydney.
The advantage of picking Pant is that he can be the floater in the line-up – a man for all situations. The one factor that goes against him is experience – he’s played only three ODIs – but as Prasad pointed out recently, his fearlessness makes him hard to ignore.
If the selectors feel Pant is too big a gamble, the other batsman they are likely to consider is Vijay. He replaced Hardik Pandya, who too was suspended during the Australia series, and played the Melbourne ODI. Then, he featured in three of the five ODIs and all the three T20Is in New Zealand, where he was pushed up to the No. 3 position. Is that an indication the Indian team management see him as a batsman who, if needed, can bowl a bit?
Vijay has a solid technique, plays with a high elbow and has the ability to clear the boundary without using a lot of muscle. During the final ODI of the New Zealand series, he played the lead role to pick India out of the pits from 18 for 4 with a 98-run fifth-wicket partnership with Rayudu. That performance, on a seaming track, when the opposition was on top, could prove pivotal. Not least because India won the game. Also man-to-man, Vijay is a better fielder than Pant.
The one other batsman the selectors might just consider is Ajinkya Rahane, who helped Mumbai win the Vijay Hazare Trophy last year. But his strike-rate – 77 in 11 innings since being dropped from the Indian ODI side – is likely to work against him.
Extra specialist fast bowler or bowling allrounder?
Jadeja returned to the fold having sat out for more than year between the West Indies tour in 2017 and the Asia Cup last year. Since then, he has taken 16 wickets from 11 matches, including two four-wicket hauls. There was nothing spectacular with the bat, but Jadeja is the second-most experienced player behind Dhoni, having featured in seven ICC tournaments. He was integral to India’s Champions Trophy success in 2013, held in England, and finished as the tournament’s highest wicket-taker. If the English summer is anything like last year, Jadeja’s fingerspin will definitely prove an asset, especially as pitches become weary at the back-end of the World Cup.
The other option for the selectors is picking a fourth specialist fast bowler. Two contenders for that position right now are Khaleel and Umesh Yadav but it is not clear whether Umesh would be fit in time for the Australian series after being forced to skip the Irani Cup due to an injury sustained while playing the Ranji Trophy final.
As a left-arm fast bowler, Khaleel brings a whole new dimension to the bowling attack. India have tried him out in each of their limited-overs assignments since the Asia Cup and he has done fairly well – 11 wickets from eight matches. If he can crank up his pace and keep it around 140 kph consistently, he’ll make the selectors job even harder.
This Australia series gives Prasad’s panel – and indeed the players too – one last chance before April comes and India have to pick their World Cup 15.