Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s decision to relinquish the ODI and T20 captaincy, two days before India’s teams for the limited-overs series against England were to be announced, has lent the matches a slightly greater significance. The ODI and T20 series will now be watched with increased interest, not only because they will be Virat Kohli’s first as full-time captain, but also because they will be Dhoni’s first without the responsibility of leadership ever since he was put in charge, back in September 2007.
“It’s a win-win situation for the captain coming in to still have Dhoni for his advice, his inputs and his cricketing brain,” Kohli told the BCCI website in an interview on January 7. “But what I’m most happy about is that he’ll be able to play free cricket and express himself as the aggressive M. S. Dhoni we knew when he first came into the team. As a player, responsibility can take that away from you. I think it’s time he enjoys his cricket because he has taken so much burden for the country.”
The One-Day Internationals, to be played in Pune, Cuttack and Kolkata, should be more competitive affairs than the Test matches, which were lopsided. England will draw confidence from its own series victory in Bangladesh and the nature of India’s performances in the triumph over New Zealand, which exposed some weaknesses.
Evident from India’s defeats to the Kiwis in Delhi and Ranchi (and indeed the victory in Dharamsala) was that the lower middle-order needed strengthening. Dhoni admitted as much in Ranchi, after India botched a chase of 261. “They played their shots when the ball was in their area. Numbers five and six are quite new. They will learn their own way. Some will play big shots, some will take it deep. Once they have played 15-20 games, they will figure out what works for them,” he said, in reference to the nature of some of the dismissals.
Early last year, in Australia, he had admitted that India lacked a settled five, six and seven, which was forcing him to bat lower down the order. The arrival of Anil Kumble as coach, though, appeared to have brought about a change in thinking as Dhoni promoted himself up to four against New Zealand in Mohali despite the uncertainty in the lower middle-order.
The question of where Dhoni will now bat was answered in part by Kohli in that BCCI interview. “I would love to see him bat higher up than he has been for the last few years and totally enjoy his cricket. If M. S. Dhoni enjoys his cricket and plays the way he did in his initial years, then the team is in a very solid space,” he said.
Over the last two years, India has tried Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Axar Patel, Ambati Rayudu, Suresh Raina, Stuart Binny, Gurkeerat Singh, Ravindra Jadeja and Dhoni, in various combinations at five, six and seven. Nobody has nailed down a place. Pandey disappointed against New Zealand while Axar, Rayudu, Raina, Binny, and Gurkeerat didn’t even make the squad for the England series. It is surprising that India did not consider Karun Nair worthy of a place even in the India 'A' teams for the warm-up matches against England. With an unsettled middle-order, this could have been an ideal time to give Nair some exposure, ahead of the Champions Trophy.
For now, the return of K. L. Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan, who appears to have been given a last chance, offers India other options. Should the pair open, Ajinkya Rahane could drop into the middle order. Kedar Jadhav impressed with the ball against New Zealand. That and Yuvraj Singh’s shock recall mean that Pandey could be forced to sit on the bench. On the bowling front, India faces a difficult choice with Amit Mishra. It is not easy to omit a bowler who has taken five for 18 in his last ODI; yet, the sensational form R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja have been in, and the back-up Jadhav offers mean that India has enough firepower in the spin department.
Hardik Pandya is undoubtedly talented and will get his opportunities. Jasprit Bumrah, India’s highest wicket-taker in ODIs in 2016 (17 scalps at an average of 14.64 and an economy rate of 3.63), ought to be a fixture in the team.
It is clear that India relies heavily on Virat Kohli. In 2016, he averaged an astronomical 92.37 over 10 ODIs, scoring three hundreds and four fifties. In Test cricket leadership appears to have had nothing but a positive impact on Kohli’s batting. In 2016, he was by a distance India’s highest run-maker in Tests too, scoring 1215 runs in 18 innings, at an average of 75.93. India will hope things will be no different in limited-overs cricket.
England, for its part, will hope a rejuvenated squad, with the addition of players not scarred by the Test series debacle, will bring better results. The aggression of Alex Hales and Jason Roy at the top, the shot-making abilities of Sam Billings, and the return of Eoin Morgan (who along with Jos Buttler skipped the Bangladesh tour out of security fears) will be welcome. The presence of Joe Root, Buttler and Jonny Bairstow lends the batting unit a formidable look. It remains to be seen how well the spinners Adil Rashid (England’s top wicket-taker in ODIs in 2016 by a mile), Moeen Ali and Liam Dawson cope. The seamers Ben Stokes, David Willey and Chris Woakes could struggle if they are not accurate. England’s bowling will perhaps come to decide the series, which has all the signs of being a thriller.
The teams: India: Virat Kohli (capt.), K.L. Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, M.S. Dhoni, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Yuvraj Singh, Ajinkya Rahane, Hardik Pandya, R. Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Amit Mishra, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and Umesh Yadav.
England: Eoin Morgan (capt.), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Jake Ball, Sam Billings, Jos Buttler, Liam Dawson, Alex Hales, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid, Joe Root, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, David Willey, and Chris Woakes.
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