It is box-ticking time for the teams in the World Cup, and a chance to correct selection mistakes made earlier. England’s decision to include Harry Brook, initially out of the squad, and the possible return of Ravichandran Ashwin are two such cases. It is also a time to reevaluate recent form just days ahead of the tournament.
India’s annihilating triumph in the Asia Cup — played in somewhat similar conditions to the one for the World Cup — means that they have established themselves as favourites in a tournament they last won at home in 2011. Virat Kohli alone survives from that final.
In sport, it is marginally easier for teams which have won before to do so again; perhaps it has to do with familiarity or understanding of what it takes. At any rate, India are the best team in the world right now, and when in full flow one of the great sights of the game.
Five of the top nine ODI teams were present at the Asia Cup, which makes it a strong regional tournament. India might have lost to Bangladesh, but that was after they had qualified for the round of four and didn’t play their best team. But it was indication that in the shorter formats there isn’t too much separating the teams; the best teams are simply more consistent and play the big matches better.
Return of Ashwin
By the end of the Asia Cup, Mohammed Siraj seems to have pushed his way into the playing eleven, possibly at the cost of Mohammed Shami. But the biggest change likely could be the reinstatement of Ashwin, the world’s No. 1 Test bowler and No. 2 Test all rounder. The choice is between maturity and inexperience, between a man with 113 matches and over 150 wickets and one with 17 matches, a 37-year-old Ashwin and a 23-year-old Washington Sundar.
It makes sense to have Ashwin in the team in home conditions, no matter what the format. Apart from his bowling, he brings to the team a sharp mind and sound cricketing sense, something skipper Rohit Sharma seems well aware of.
The wisdom of having a short series against Australia now reveals itself. Initially it was thought that it might have been too close to the World Cup with potential for staleness, tiredness and injury. But now it appears to be the ideal build-up against a team which are among the favourites to win the World Cup. The final box-ticking can be done here by both teams.
India will have to go into the World Cup carrying with them some of their recent problems. But the time for major changes is over as the team is largely settled. It is futile looking for a batter in the top five who can also bowl a few overs. But there are a couple of batsmen in the lower half who can bowl, and for the moment that should suffice. Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja fill those slots well.
Perhaps one slot in the middle order which looks almost settled at the moment — with Virat Kohli, K.L. Rahul, Ishan Kishan and one of Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav and Tilak Verma — might need to be filled. That will depend on the opposition and the possibility of Pandya bowling ten overs in every match. His is a crucial role.
Question mark over Axar
Rohit Sharma hopes that both Shreyas Iyer (“99 percent fit”) and Axar Patel (“hope he recovers quickly”) are on the road to recovery. This means India have a bigger basket of players to choose from. Axar has an injured wrist as well as a tear in his quadricep and will take longer to recover, and if India decide to carry him initially waiting for full fitness, he might just be short of game time.
Selection, never an easy task at the best of times, gets complicated with injury and players returning to the fold. That both Jasprit Bumrah and K.L. Rahul hit their stride straightaway after returning to the team was a significant factor in India’s Asia Cup win.
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards — the philosopher Soren Kiekegaard’s maxim applies equally to cricket. Choices are made before the event, but their impact can be understood only in retrospect. The only right choice is an immediately successful one in a tournament like the World Cup.