What We Learned in NZ: India’s WC Puzzle Closer to Being Solved?

It could have been looked at as the final challenge to end a lengthy summer Down Under, but India’s limited overs tour of New Zealand was always about more than just the present.

With a World Cup right around the corner, and this being the team’s final away assignment before launching their bid in England come May, the gaze was set upon the near future.

Both the ODIs and the T20Is saw some ‘experiments’ made keeping in mind the potential look of the final 15-man roster, even if at the cost of immediate results.

The results were by no means disappointing – India dominated the ODI series to win 4-1, before coming a close second in the T20Is, which finished 2-1 in favour of the hosts.

The key World Cup takeways for India from their limited overs tour of New Zealand:

Pant Provides Happy Headache

The problem of plenty, as captains and coaches and commentators often point out, is a happy one for any team to have. And it appears to hold true for this Indian team when it comes to wicketkeepers and middle-order batsmen.

Any doubts on MS Dhoni’s relevance in the squad were quashed away with three half-centuries in Australia, two of which were match-winning (and one series-clinching). The back-up ‘keeper’s spot was now seemingly a two-horse race between Dinesh Karthik and Rishabh Pant, and both showed enough to merit selection.

India fielded all three keeper-batsmen in each of the three T20Is, with the trio making up the middle order in New Zealand.

Pant’s returns were the highest, with the 21-year-old making 72 runs at a strike rate of 144, which included a mature 40 not out off 28 balls to see off the chase in the second match at Auckland and a 12-ball 28 with India attempting a 213-run chase at Hamilton.

Karthik, however, very nearly pulled off another Houdini act in the decider, smashing an unbeaten 33 off 16 balls, laced with four sixes, to get India within five runs of their steep target.

If there is room for only one of the two, Karthik’s experience in the 50-over game is likely to tip the scales in his favour.

Dinesh Karthik nearly pulled off a heist for India in their 213-run chase in the deciding third T20I against New Zealand at Hamilton.

Also Read: Karthik Mocked on Twitter as He Denies Krunal a Crucial Single

Shankar Adds to All-Round Options

Vijay Shankar was drafted into the Indian touring army in Australia when Hardik Pandya was indefinitely suspended for his controversial appearance on a TV show, and the Tamil Nadu all-rounder has done his profile no harm.

Not quite a rookie at 28, Shankar had received a maiden ODI cap in the final match of the preceding series in Australia, and featured in three ODIs in New Zealand, as well as all three T20Is.

He remained surprisingly under-utilised with the ball, bowling a mere 10 overs during the ODIs, and none in the T20Is. But with the bat, Shankar showed promising signs.

His most notable contribution in the 50 overs leg was a vital one for the team, as he stitched a patient recovery act along with Ambati Rayudu in the final game at Wellington. He could have made more than the 46 he ended up with had he not been sold down the river by his partner in a needless run-out.

In the shorter format, Shankar was promoted to the top, batting at either three or four – to his admitted surprise. He fared decently too, scoring 27, 14 and 43 at a rate above 150.

That he isn’t being used with the ball could signal at him perhaps not being in the ‘final’ fold for the World Cup, but that he lends an additional seam-bowling option could put him in an interesting contest with Ravindra Jadeja (read below).

Jadhav, the Bowler, a Necessity

Kedar Jadhav may or may not have done enough to earn his World Cup berth as a middle-order batsman, but it is his ‘lesser’ trait which is surely buying him his ticket to England.

India’s preferred ODI XI, which features Hardik Pandya as the all-rounder at number seven, has five full bowling options, but it comes with its terms and conditions.

Pandya, as evidenced by a career economy rate of 5.53, isn’t always a sureshot to be delivering his full quota of 10 overs, and the two ‘wristies’, while devastatingly effective in the recent past, can be put under the pump when opposition batsmen decide to take the game to them.

That makes the presence of a sixth bowling option – that luxury India always had in the days of Sehwag/Tendulkar/Ganguly – imperative, and in the present scheme of things, Jadhav remains the only batsman with a part-time bowling tag to go with him.

And he doesn’t too a bad job of it, at all: Jadhav rolled his ‘slingy’ arm over for 19 overs during the ODI series in New Zealand, conceding under five-and-a-half per over and taking three wickets. Those wickets, one apiece in three different games, were those of Henry Nicholls, Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson.

It isn’t to say that Jadhav the batsman isn’t handy; that is still the role through which he will make the team if he does. But Jadhav the bowler may just be turning into an all-too-important cog in the World Cup wheel.

Also Read: Super Shami, Robust Rayudu, Package Pandya: India’s NZ Report Card

Shami a Sureshot, Surely

While he has been a constant fixture in India’s Test plans over the past few years, Mohammed Shami’s ODI career presents an intriguing case study.

He was India’s second-highest wicket-taker at the 2015 World Cup, and the fourth-highest overall in the tournament, prizing 17 scalps from just seven games.

From there until the start of this year, Shami played only five ODIs, in which he took eight further wickets. But an economy rate in excess of six, coupled with an erratic fitness bill, meant the seamer didn’t appear likely to be on the flight to England come May.

A return to Australia and New Zealand – the scene of his World Cup exploits in 2015 – has turned the equation around in his favour.

Seven matches across the Trans-Tasman yielded 14 wickets, at a top-notch striek rate of 25.1. What made his returns more impressive was that he struck the blows with new ball and old.

The prospect of a three-pronged pace attack reading Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and Shami is no longer a far-fetched one. It's also quite the finger-licking one, isn’t it?

Mohammed Shami was named Player of the Series during India’s 4-1 win in New Zealand after returning nine wickets in four ODIs.

Also Read: The Resurrection of Mohammed Shami’s ODI Career

What’s Going On With Jadeja?

Ravindra Jadeja’s ODI storyline from just the last 18 months, too, is quite the intriguing chapter.

He, along with R Ashwin, was ‘rested’ after the runners-up finish at the 2017 Champions Trophy, where many felt they had been found wanting in England. The manner in which their replacements – Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav – gripped opposition batsmen and the public mindspace led many to believe Jadeja and Ashwin were condemned to playing solely in their whites.

Yet, in the midst of an injury crisis during the Asia Cup last year, India turned to Jadeja, and he lapped up the opportunity.

Eight matches (four at the Asia Cup, four against West Indies at home) saw the all-rounder claim 14 wickets while conceding only 4.59 runs per over. His ability with the bat, and livewire presence in the field, meant Jadeja provided great value as an all-rounder.

But after three laboured matches in Australia, where he managed only two wickets, Jadeja was left out of the XI in all five matches in New Zealand – even the last two, when the series was already won.

While no comment has been made from anyone in the Indian camp, it surely can’t be a great omen to be warming the bench when the team is trying out every possible combination in the lead-up to a big-ticket event?

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