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Kohli era begins with test against English power-play

Wisden India logo Wisden India 15-01-2017
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The 2017 Champions Trophy is almost six months away, but Virat Kohli, India’s new limited-overs captain, has his eyes firmly fixed on the big-ticket tournament. Fortunately for him, MS Dhoni’s decision to step down as captain also provides Kohli enough time to build a strong side for both the Champions Trophy and the 2019 50-over World Cup.

In that light, the upcoming three-match One-Day International series against England, the first of which takes place at MCA International Stadium in Pune on Sunday (January 15), assumes great significance, especially after the bruising the visitors received in the Test series.

Although India start as firm favourites, England are hardly pushovers. They finished second to West Indies at the World T20 in India last year, and have won five of their seven bilateral ODI series since crashing out in the first round of the 2015 World Cup. Meanwhile, India, whose recent golden run in Tests has masked an up-and-down run in ODIs, have just these three matches to iron out any kinks before June, when the Champions Trophy begins in England and Wales.

The lack of an in-form and settled opening combine has hurt India the most in recent times, with Kohli having to shoulder the bulk of the scoring responsibility. Against South Africa in October 2015, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma failed to put together a single half-century stand as India went down 3-2. During the 4-1 loss in Australia, the two combined for a half-century and a century stand, but only after the series had been conceded. While Rohit was in fine form in both the series, it was Dhawan’s inconsistency that was glaring. Against New Zealand at home last October then, India were made to sweat for the 3-2 win. In Dhawan’s absence because of injury, Ajinkya Rahane partnered Rohit at the top, but the two could not manage a single half-century stand.

Now, while Rohit is out, still recovering from a thigh injury, there could possibly be a three-way shootout for the opening slots, with the KL Rahul and Dhawan in the mix alongside Rahane. Dhawan made a case for himself with a neatly constructed half-century in the first warm-up match for India A against the visiting Englishmen, while Rahane, who is yet to make the opening slot his own, furthered his chances with a match-winning 91 in the second warm-up game.

Kohli slots in at No. 3, and he suggested on the eve of the first game that Dhoni’s promotion, possibly to No. 4, would let the former captain revert to his swashbuckling ways without the burden of captaincy. In the absence of Suresh Raina, who has been left out, the selectors turned to Yuvraj Singh for his experience in limited-overs cricket. And although the move raised a few eyebrows, Yuvraj put them to rest with a quick half-century in the first warm-up match in Mumbai.

“MS will have a bit more freedom and more assurance knowing that he doesn’t have to think twice before attempting a big shot,” said Kohli onSaturday. “And with Yuvi coming in as well in the middle overs, both of of them can give and take, that’s whey they are so successful in the middle overs while batting together. They feed of each others’ momentum and one can play the aggressive role and one can keep knocking it around in singles.”

There’s also the matter of who will occupy the lower middle-order slots and play the finisher’s role if Dhoni is promoted – Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav or Hardik Pandya? Both Jadhav and Pandey had modest returns against New Zealand, but while the Karnataka batsman impressed with a match-winning century against Australia a year ago, the latter’s part-time offspin proved handy against Kane Williamson’s side, and both men are excellent in the field, while Pandya fulfils India’s quest for a seam-bowling allrounder.

Throw in R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja for the spin duties, and when it comes to their seam attack, India will have to choose from Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah.

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By no means can one call England’s pace attack for this series experienced, but there is no lack of skill or speed either. For an Indian line-up that was unsettled by Tim Southee and Trent Boult four months ago, England’s attack led by Chris Woakes, and comprising David Willey and Liam Plunkett, could pose an equal, if not a bigger, threat.

England’s spinners, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali, were not as lethal as R Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja in the Test series, and on an MCA surface that sported a tinge of green and looks ideal for stroke-making, their struggles could only intensify.

Joe Root’s timely arrival following the birth of his son is a shot in the arm for England, who are still coming to terms with Eoin Morgan’s inconsistency. Morgan copped a lot of flak for opting out of Bangladesh tour last year because of security concerns, and the poor run of scores has just added to the England captain’s woes.

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Sam Billings, who has been talked up as one of England’s best players of spin, impressed with his match-winning 93 in the first warm-up match, and Jonny Bairstow top-scored with a fluent 64 at No. 3 in the second, but the two aren’t guaranteed places in the XI now that Root is available for the first ODI.

“I think it’s great to have those guys in form,” said Morgan on Saturday. “For the last couple of years, our batting unit as a whole has been extremely strong. It wouldn’t say it’s well set, but it is a very difficult unit to get into. To the guys who always miss out I just say ‘you gotta take the chance when it comes, and when it does, just make the most of it.’ So it’s great that they’re in form and it gives us a lot of options to choose from.”

With ten more ODIs after this series, the visitors have enough time to build towards the Champions Trophy. But before that, they have their poor record in their four previous ODI series in India to correct. Just three wins in 21 ODIs in India since 2002 does not paint a pretty picture for a side that is trying to get to a stage where they can be regarded as as powerhouses in limited-overs cricket.

Teams (from)

India: Virat Kohli (capt), Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Yuvraj Singh, Ajinkya Rahane, Hardik Pandya, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Amit Mishra, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav.

England: Eoin Morgan (capt), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Jake Ball, Sam Billings, Jos Buttler (wk), Liam Dawson, Alex Hales, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid, Joe Root, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, David Willey, Chris Woakes.

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