The 2-1 win in the T20 series has given India impetus to make the tour of England rewarding in other formats too. True, T20 is bit of a lottery, but these victories have significance beyond just the scorebook: In boosting morale and confidence particularly.
The primary thrust of this long tour is obviously winning the five-Test series. The last two rubbers, in 2011 and 2014, produced unhappy results. For several individuals as well as collectively (remember India are ranked No.1), this will be a litmus test and could make or mar reputation.
The first Test is still three weeks away so I’ll hold back discussion on that for later. Starting today are three ODIs, important for sustaining current form and momentum into the Tests, but also significant for two other compelling reasons.
Dislodged from the No 1 ODI spot by England, India will be keen to regain this status. Rankings are not necessarily the best index to a team’s strength, but give team performances a certain locus, and players a focus.
More pertinently, in the short term this ODI series affords players opportunity to prove their credentials for 2019 World Cup, which will be played in England.
While India has been most consistent in ODIs over the past couple of years, the team is still in a state of flux as the captain, coach and selectors experiment to find not just the right combination on paper, but also players who can cope with stiff technical challenges and daunting situations.
This explains the chop and churn that has marked the Indian team selection, especially in the past year and odd. For instance, in the 2017 Champions Trophy, the main spinners were Ashwin and Jadeja. Neither is part of the ODI squad today. Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav have seized their chance splendidly.
Among fast bowlers too there have been upheavals. Spearhead Mohammed Shami has lost his place in ODIs. While his form – and fitness – suffered because of his rocky personal life lately, Shami had in fact been unable to retain his place against competition from Bumrah first, and a rejuvenated Umesh Yadav.
Similarly in the batting, KL Rahul, not part of the Champions Trophy last year, is seen as integral to the side today. While Yuvraj could be said to be long in the tooth, it’s been a struggle for Raina, once indispensable, to keep his place.
Meanwhile Rahane, considered India’s best in all formats after Kohli, and touted as a certainty after handsome scoring in the ODIs against South Africa a few months back, finds himself out of both limited overs teams! This could be construed as diabolical selection strategy or richness of talent in Indian cricket currently. I’ll go with the latter.
There are at least 7-8 high quality pacers vying for four possible spots, an equal number of spinners eyeing two, maybe three slots, 4-5 batsmen pushing those in the current squad, and at least 2 from the World Cup winning U-19 team demanding attention.
This `problem of plenty’, as Kohli called it, has the team management and selectors in a dilemma no doubt. But those feeling the heat and pressure of competition most are the players. In an oblique way, this has helped India perform better.
While a core group has come to be identified, membership to at least half the squad that will go to the World Cup is still open. The task before those who are in the team currently is to cement their places, for those on the outside to seize the opportunity as and when it comes. The countdown to the World Cup team promises to be fascinating. I can count at least 12-15 players on tenterhooks. Needless to say, only the toughest will make it.