White-ball mode: Virat Kohli shows the way at nets as power-hitting takes centre stage

IND vs AUS: Close to an hour-and-a-quarter into his nets session, Virat Kohli swivelled round to connect with a torpedo hurled at him and send the ball flying into the middle tier behind midwicket. With the next, which seemed like travelling even faster, Kohli nearly took the throwdown specialist, who was quick to duck, with his straight-as-an-arrow shot. And just before he called it a day, the former India captain caressed one over the cover boundary.

Fresh from a Test hundred, this was one of Kohli’s longest outings at the nets this series as he spent close to two hours in the middle, occasionally taking short breaks on a sultry evening in Mumbai. It was almost two hours of clean, aesthetic power-hitting, signalling the onset of the white-ball season, which concludes with the World Cup on home soil in October-November.

Adjacent to Kohli, Shubman Gill shadow-batted on the centre pitch, visualising what will it be like to face the new ball when he opens the batting in the first ODI against Australia on Friday along with Ishan Kishan. Rahul Dravid, too, was in the thick of things, handing catching practice to the fielders with the same intensity as he batted back in the day.

There were enough signs of this even in the opposition camp as limited-overs specialists Marcus Stoinis and Glenn Maxwell hit the ground running. They were among the handful of Australians who practised on the match eve with contrasting approaches. Stoinis, in his hour-long stay, was all power and, like Kohli, smacked the ball over the straight and mid-wicket boundaries several times. Maxwell, in his brief stay, tried the reverse scoops and paddle sweeps before positioning himself at the long-on boundary to collect the balls Stoinis sent into the stands.

In cricket’s brisk-moving bandwagon, the Test series already seems a lifetime ago. The focus, well and truly, has shifted to the 50-over format; with a seemingly inconsequential bilateral series gaining relevance as both sides have an eye on the World Cup.

Seven months out from the showpiece event, neither India nor Australia can claim to be settled and well-rounded units.

Captain Hardik Pandya – standing in for Rohit Sharma, who has skipped the first ODI due to personal commitments – struck a relaxed chord on Thursday and refused to get flustered by the multiple problems his team is facing, prominent among them is the ineffectiveness of the bowling attack in the absence of an injured Jasprit Bumrah.

The pacer, who recently had surgery on his back, hasn’t played since last September and is in a race against time to get match-fit for the World Cup. Pandya admitted that having ‘Jassi (Bumrah) makes a massive difference’. “But to be very honest, we aren’t much bothered because the guys who have taken the role of Jassi, I am quite confident they’ll be doing very well,” he said, adding that he’ll step in to bowl if the ‘situation requires’.

A Bumrah-less bowling attack is just one problem. The injury to Shreyas Iyer, workload management of the players and India’s inability to win in the knockout stages of an ICC event are some of the other issues India stare at. “We will be trying to be a little brave,” Pandya said. “All these bilaterals are as challenging, they can get as close to the wire as they can. That is the only way we are going to learn and start playing under the pressure of knockouts.”

India aren’t alone in fighting battles on multiple fronts.

Australia have lost their previous two ODI series in the subcontinent, losing to Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and they begin their World Cup prep with reinforcements flying in for the three-match series.

David Warner is awaiting for a medical clearance to play in the first ODI. While a fully-fit Warner is sure to be one of the first names in the playing X1 given his one-day form, Australia are likely to field an all-rounder-heavy line-up for the series. That’s after Stoinis, Maxwell, Mitchell Marsh and Ashton Agar joined the squad, which already had Cameron Green.

Marsh, who returns to the Australian squad after ankle surgery, cited the example of England – ‘who have guys batting at No. 8 who are genuine batters – to hammer home his point that all-rounders will be essential for the ‘balance of our team’ during the World Cup.

Batting-wise, he said it ‘gives you the ability to either set really big totals or chase big totals’. “Think we’ll see that this series, hopefully, there’ll be a lot of runs scored, and looking forward to the World Cup, just the way cricket is played here in the white-ball format, you’ll have to chase or make big scores. The more flexibility and depth you can have with your batting line-up, think it will be really important,” Marsh said, adding that simultaneously, they also give the captain bowling options.

“As an allrounder,” he said, “I think it’s vitally important they play all three of us… that’s a joke.”

Maybe he was just half-joking. In a World Cup rehearsal, it’s these combinations both teams will try to test.

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