Seasoned India well-equipped to retain title

Virat Kohli leads an experienced, balanced side with bowlers for all surfaces, and a terrifying line-up of batsmen. More than the threat on the field, however, the Indian team must tide over a challenge it had perhaps not prepared for.

India has two of the most potent batsmen in its armoury in Virat Kohli (left) and M. S. Dhoni.   -  K. R. Deepak

India's Champions Trophy defence begins against an uneasy backdrop. Ideally, news of differences between captain and coach should not emerge days before a major tournament, especially with a high-stakes clash against Pakistan first up. Whatever the magnitude of the issue – and the players will insist it is no distraction – there is a fear this could turn into an unwelcome sideshow over the next two weeks.

The timing is unfortunate for India enters the competition as one of the favourites. Virat Kohli leads an experienced, balanced side with bowlers for all surfaces, and a terrifying line-up of batsmen. Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, whose fireworks at the top were key to India's success four years ago, are back in the side. Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, M. S. Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav – a combination deployed in the One-Day International (ODI) series against England earlier this year – follow the openers.

Hardik Pandya's presence gives India the option of a seam-bowling all-rounder, albeit one whose batting has seemed like the primary skill so far. R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, who combined to take 20 wickets here in the last edition of the tournament and tormented batsmen during India's recent triumphant home season of Test matches, are easily the best spin pair in the world. Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who tied batsmen in knots in the Indian Premier League (IPL), join Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav to complete a powerful pace bowling quartet.

There are some concerns, though. Dhawan has played only two ODIs in the last 15 months, scoring 1 and 11. Rohit last played for India in October, since when a thigh injury kept him out. He returned to lead Mumbai Indians to victory in the IPL, but far from dazzled with the bat. Ashwin did not feature in the IPL, recovering from a sports hernia following a remarkable season at home, when he took 82 wickets in 13 Tests. The off-spinner has played only six ODIs since the end of the Bangladesh series in June 2015, although M.S.K. Prasad has suggested that he had been used carefully in the format with an eye on the Champions Trophy. Shami's last ODI, meanwhile, was the World Cup semifinal of 2015, owing to a troublesome knee injury. His three for 47 in the warm-up game at the Oval will have pleased the team.

Little one-day cricket

It is difficult to evaluate India's form in the one-day format for the team has played so little of it in the recent past: only 27 matches since the end of the World Cup (Australia and England have played 42 and 41 respectively), and only three in 2017.

This is Kohli's first global tournament as captain and it arrives after what was – by his standards – a mediocre Indian summer. Shoots of recovery have already appeared (a pair of fifties in his last IPL game and the warm-up fixture against New Zealand) and it will be interesting to note his approach, given that his last trip here in 2014 was far from productive (a top score of 39 from 10 innings). That was Test cricket, however, and this is white-ball cricket, where he has rarely been troubled over a sustained period.

Kohli has said the team should not “think about the fact that we are defending the title” but the weight of expectation will doubtless be felt. Considering how he has led the Test side since taking over in early 2015, such pressure should only act as a stimulant.

He and his men must instead tide over a challenge they had perhaps not prepared for.

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