Indian team: Gearing up for greater battles

The return to form of M. S. Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh is a good sign as India slots the higher gears and dreams about the perfect synthesis of potential and performance in the ICC Champions Trophy at England in June. Incidentally the stakes are truly high as the Men in Blue are the defending champions. If the old order seems to be in fine fettle, more alluring is the cool-head and rapid-shots that Kedar Jadhav brings to the table.

M. S. Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh, in their mid-thirties (35 to be precise), showed that there is enough strength in their sinews and their skill-sets haven’t waned yet. Most importantly, they proved that they can be fine foot-soldiers while Kohli held the reins.   -  PTI

Virat Kohli’s constant progress has ensured his berth in the pantheon of great limited-overs players.   -  K. R. DEEPAK

K. R. Deepak

India’s batting conveyor belt keeps throwing up precious talent and Kedar Jadhav is the latest to break through.   -  K. R. Deepak

When M. S. Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh turned the clock back with individual centuries and a 256-run fourth-wicket partnership against England in the second ODI at Cuttack’s Barabati Stadium, in an inverse way, Indian cricket was looking ahead. It was heartening that the batting feast came close on the heels of Dhoni putting an end to the dichotomy in the captaincy stakes by stepping down as India’s ODI and Twenty20I skipper.

The former captain thus effectively paved the way for Virat Kohli to be the supreme leader across all formats. Equally splendid was the assurance and aggression that Dhoni and Yuvraj exemplified in their stints at the crease. The two, in their mid-thirties (35 to be precise), showed that there is enough strength in their sinews and their skill-sets haven’t waned yet. Most importantly, they proved that they can be fine foot-soldiers while Kohli held the reins.

It is a good sign as India slots the higher gears and dreams about the perfect synthesis of potential and performance in the ICC Champions Trophy at England in June. Incidentally the stakes are truly high as the Men in Blue are the defending champions. The current squad holds promise while some like Rohit Sharma, recuperating from a surgery, is expected to make a comeback and bolster the unit.

For starters, the most pleasing news would be Kohli’s constant progress and his berth in the pantheon of great limited-overs players is now assured. In a podium that has the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Sir Vivian Richards, Kohli is a worthy addition. Besides Kohli, Dhoni and Yuvraj’s return to form augurs well. When in fine fettle, the troika of Kohli, Dhoni and Yuvraj can inflict the worst migraines to the best of rival attacks.

If the old order seems to be in fine fettle (though, Kohli isn’t exactly old), more alluring is the cool-head and rapid-shots that Kedar Jadhav brings to the table. The man from Maharashtra crunched into the England attack as if it was vada-paav (a Mumbai street-food) while clubbing a match-winning 120 in the first ODI in Pune. It does look like India’s batting conveyor belt will keep throwing up precious talent with Jadhav being the latest addition.

India nailed the three-match ODI series against England, but in the months leading up to the ICC Champions Trophy, a few blips need to be sorted. A year back, the opening duo of Rohit and Shikhar Dhawan seemed assured in their positions. But now that pedestal has seemingly crumbled. Shikhar is searching for form while Rohit is recovering from a surgery. Others like Ajinkya Rahane and K. L. Rahul have been tried at those spots but they haven’t yet seized the opportunities.

Surely Rohit, once he recovers, will be back, but still the opening combine remains a work in progress. It is not a good sign as in bowler-friendly conditions that prevail in England, the openers have a bigger role to play. It may be recalled that during India’s winning run in the last edition in 2013, Shikhar played a strong hand and he was the tournament’s highest run-getter (363). Kohli believes that with Shikhar, it boils down to his head being in a nice space. The sooner Shikhar gets there, the better it is for the team.

India remains a strong outfit but it hasn’t mauled opposition ranks at home in recent times. The ODI series against New Zealand, a close-affair was secured at 3-2 and England too gave a good account of itself in the latest games. Despite Dhoni and Yuvraj’s heroics, Eoin Morgan’s men nearly threatened to overhaul India’s 381 for six in Cuttack and handed the host a five-run defeat in Kolkata.

That no target seems safe after the proliferation of Twenty20 is an acknowledged fact and the same yardstick has seeped into ODIs too. Yet, Kohli and coach Anil Kumble will keep in mind that rival batsmen refuse to be overawed by the Indian bowlers. India has a good blend of spinners in the crafty R. Ashwin and the niggardly Ravindra Jadeja.

The latter was the highest wicket-taker (12) in the 2013 Champions Trophy. Despite the overwhelming image of seamer-friendly tracks in England, spin too has a role to play, though it may not necessarily be of match-altering proportions.

What needs immediate consideration is the firming up of the country’s pace attack, which at times is difficult due to injuries to key personnel and the obvious need to rest some of them. The quirky Jasprit Bumrah and the hard-working Hardik Pandya have stepped in while seniors like Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar are around.

Ishant Sharma too needs to be a part of the combine. While the immediate goal would be the Champions Trophy, squads and skippers often follow a four-year cycle in sync with the conventional 50-over World Cup. The next one is scheduled for 2019 in England and Kohli and Kumble will surely look at that milestone too.

Right now, Dhoni is a brilliant asset as he combines blistering batting with fine wicket-keeping, but just in case he decides to hang up his boots (and you never know with the man), India will be staring at a gaping hole. The enforcers — Dhoni and Yuvraj — will be 37 in 2019 and it is a matter of conjecture, if they can persevere and remain effective till then.

Seen in that light, the Champions Trophy should offer a mirror to where Kohli’s men stand in their ODI evolution.

Before that, the Indian Premier League will roll in and that will offer its share of twists and thrills, fresh talent and injuries. India’s current squad may well sport a few changes after the IPL. Kohli would rather believe that he and his men are in a good space for now while seasoned campaigners like Suresh Raina, out in the wilderness, will nurse their dreams of wending their way back. For now, the resources are adequate and that is a good base to build upon a fine team.