Bengaluru: On the fifth day of June, India will play South Africa in their opening match of the 2019 World Cup.
It doesn’t matter which eleven take the field in Southampton, England, on that day, but the foundation will be laid on 15 April.
When India announce their squad, soon after 3 pm IST Monday, they will have a solid plan in place.
Captain Virat Kohli, coach Ravi Shastri — whose contract runs out at the end of the World Cup — and others will be looking to put their best foot forward.
In recent times, Indian selectors, authorised by the board, have put out swollen squads of 17 to 18 in bilateral series.
But, now, with only 15 to pick, the selectors actually have to select.
The sureshots & the probables
To start with, let’s list those who pick themselves.
Virat Kohli will lead the team and bat at No. 3, on the back of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan opening. Truth be told, nobody knows who will bat at No. 4, but more on that later.
At No. 5 is Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who is in the team as a wicketkeeper-stabiliser but more as the brains behind the Kohli operation.
Then comes Hardik Pandya, but is he one spot too early at No. 6?
Back to the middle and No. 4 for a second. Over the last two years, the middle-order batsmen most invested in are Ambati Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav. Both have taken some chances and neither has done enough to make the spot their own.
Rayudu is keen but he brings little on the field and nothing with bowling. Jadhav is excellent on slow, low tracks with his version of off-breaks, but he won’t be of much use on an English pitch in summer.
Can K.L. Rahul step in at No. 4? He looks likely to be in the 15 to start with, as third opener and reserve wicketkeeper, which would make Rishabh Pant surplus to requirement despite his X factor.
From all indications, however, India’s major surprise could be at the No. 4 position. If the call is for conservatism, the obvious go-to person there is Ajinkya Rahane, but it has been a while since he has been seriously spoken of as a top-order option in 50-over cricket.
Then comes Shreyas Iyer, the Mumbai batsman who has lit up the Indian domestic scene for a while. He’s a non-Rahane in terms of approach and aggression, but he has the same hunger for runs.
In addition, he is a gun fielder and is having a very good run in the Indian Premier League (IPL).
About the bowlers
In bowling, it is assumed that Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav are the wrist spinners who will be in harness each day. Except, there is little reason to believe that wrist spinners are the only bowlers who can be successful in limited-overs cricket.
On a wet day in England, these talented wristies won’t be able to grip, rip or land the ball as they would like.
But a left-arm darter such as Ravindra Jadeja is a banker in all conditions. What he gives on the field, along with steady, accurate and simple bowling, makes Jadeja irresistible, and there will be days on which his batting will come to the fore. He’s no mug with the bat, and, especially in difficult conditions, he can do things that others may not be able to because he has nothing to lose.
The seam department is largely covered, Jasprit Bumrah leading the pack, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami in harness. Ishant Sharma could be an outside contender, for the height and bounce he brings, and Umesh Yadav is always there and thereabouts with his reverse swing specialisation.
India would have liked to have a left-arm quick in the reckoning but Mohammad Khaleel has not come up as the team management would have liked.
There’s time yet between now and the start of the World Cup and Pandya has had issues with injuries and fitness. Which brings Vijay Shankar into the picture.
India have used him as a bowler who bats a bit, but his real value is as someone who bats in the top order and chips in with an over or two. And the conditions in England will suit him just fine.
For the moment, there seems to be a problem of plenty. But the flip side of that is that India don’t know what their best eleven is, with no 50-over cricket to go before the World Cup. There is also a common belief that Kohli and Shastri pick not just the eleven but the squad.
“If someone thinks that way, they are wrong. We have a job to do, a serious one, and we intend to do it, as we have all this while,” a selector told ThePrint. “There are many things to balance, and that is for us to do.”
India Squad (Probable): Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli (Captain), Shreyas Iyer/Ajinkya Rahane, Kedar Jhadav, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wicketkeeper), Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammad Shami, K.L. Rahul, Vijay Shankar.