IND v AUS: Time for the final audition before the World Cup

Virat Kohli’s side will have seven limited-overs matches against Australia to experiment and determine the final team combinations for the World Cup.

He’s back: Virat Kohli (centre) will be back playing for India after having been rested for three ODIs against New Zealand.   -  K. R. Deepak

It is worth asking what purpose T20 matches will serve when a team has only a handful of competitive international fixtures left ahead of a 50-over World Cup.

India’s home limited-overs series against Australia -- which begins with the first of two T20s here on Sunday and will be followed by five ODIs -- is its last scheduled engagement before the side heads to the UK in May. In between, players will be involved in the IPL, but that may hardly be classified as preparation. There is, simply, no great context to these games.

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All that, however, will hardly dampen the enthusiasm of the thousands who will pour into the ACA-VDCA Stadium for India’s first home match of the year. This is a team that has returned from a lengthy tour of the Antipodes with its reputation greatly burnished. That historic Test series triumph in Australia had lifted the confidence of the side, Virat Kohli said on Saturday, instilling the belief that anyone could be beaten anywhere; Indian crowds will hope to be able to see some of that spirit over the next three weeks.

Kohli returns to the team after a break, having sat out the last phase of the New Zealand tour, as does Jasprit Bumrah, who is now arguably the team's most important bowling asset across formats. Bhuvneshwar Kumar is not part of the T20 squad, and so Bumrah's role will be vital, as will that of Umesh Yadav, the only other senior pace bowler in the unit.

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Kuldeep Yadav has been rested for the T20s, which leaves Yuzvendra Chahal and Krunal Pandya as the primary spinners. Punjab leggie Mayank Markande, who has earned his maiden call-up to the senior squad, could be considered in case Kohli feels the need for a third spinner.

The injury to Hardik Pandya leaves India with a minor issue on the bowling front. If Vijay Shankar is to be treated as a direct replacement, it would require Kohli to place faith in his skills with the ball. The Tamil Nadu all-rounder shone in New Zealand but did not bowl at all in the three T20s. This time, though, it would appear that India cannot afford to field him for his batting alone, given the captain's lack of options.

Can Vijay Shankar make a decisive leap to the World Cup squad? Photo: AFP

 

It will be interesting to note where Rishabh Pant bats on Sunday, and what sort of role -- if any -- K.L. Rahul plays. Both find a place in both the T20 and ODI squads; they will have an opportunity, over the coming weeks, to press their case for inclusion in the World Cup group. It also remains to be seen if Dinesh Karthik, who has been excluded from the one-day side, gets a chance in the T20s.

Australia’s players, meanwhile, are fresh off a long Big Bash League season, with selections for this India tour influenced by performances in the tournament.

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D’Arcy Short was the BBL’s leading run-score while all-rounder Marcus Stoinis thrived after being  promoted to opener by the Melbourne Stars. Kane Richardson was the BBL’s highest wicket-taker while Glenn Maxwell, who finished on the losing side in the final, delivered more evidence -- if any were needed -- of his genius.

This may not be the most significant pair of T20 matches ever played, but the presence of the likes of Maxwell and Pant should ensure much entertainment.

Squads
  • India: Virat Kohli (c), Rohit Sharma, K. L. Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Rishabh Pant, Dinesh Karthik, MS Dhoni (wk), Krunal Pandya, Vijay Shankar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav, Sidharth Kaul, Mayank Markande.
  • Australia: Aaron Finch (c), D’Arcy Short, Pat Cummins, Alex Carey, Jason Behrendorff, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Peter Handscomb, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Glenn Maxwell, Jhye Richardson, Kane Richardson, Marcus Stoinis, Ashton Turner, Adam Zampa.
  • Match starts: 7pm IST.