It hasn’t been long since the Twenty20 (T20) cricket season came to an end, with the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) and Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) giving us a thrilling finale to witness too. The focus now shifts to 50-over cricket and seeing India in action after a gap of 71 days. Talking of 50-over cricket, it will have been 139 days since the Men in Blue last played One-Day International (ODI) cricket by the time MS Dhoni’s devils take the field of play at the Harare Sports Club on Saturday, to face Zimbabwe in the first ODI.
Shifting to 50-over cricket from a long season of T20 cricket calls for quite a lot of changes in the approaches of batsmen and bowlers, the way playing XIs have to be picked and the manner in which matches play out, too.
Keeping those aspects in mind, let us discuss what should be India’s playing XI for the first ODI against Zimbabwe?
1st ODI v Zimbabwe: India’s Playing XI
Before we delve into the playing XI Dhoni should ideally go in with for the first ODI on Saturday, let us look at India’s squad for the tour of Zimbabwe:
MS Dhoni (C & WK), Ambati Rayudu, Axar Patel, Barinder Sran, Dhawal Kulkarni, Faiz Fazal, Jasprit Bumrah, Jayant Yadav, Jaydev Unadkat, Kedar Jadhav, Karun Nair, Lokesh Rahul, Mandeep Singh, Manish Pandey, Rishi Dhawan and Yuzvendra Chahal.
Now, as aforementioned, there has to be a change in the way players approach an ODI, in terms of preparation and how they tackle the challenges this format of the game presents them with.
As a captain, Dhoni cannot pick a playing XI dominated by floaters or genuine all-rounders, as he might choose to in a T20 game. The reason is, in T20 cricket, batsmen take a lot of risks and the chances of being dismissed are high consequently, and as a bowler, you can only bowl four overs. Therefore, in reality, a captain’s propensity is to pick players who can give him two-three overs with the ball and when they have the bat in their hands, score 30-40 runs. If a player can make such contributions with bat and ball, he is an asset to any captain.
In ODIs, however, you need specialists and of course, a couple of all-rounders, ideally, to lend balance to the side. This 16-man Indian squad has a couple of all-rounders, in Rishi Dhawan and Axar Patel, who have yet to prove themselves but nonetheless, have the ability in both these critical departments of the game. Talking purely in terms of team selection, Dhoni needs to pick specialist batsmen and bowlers, since you need to play well for the majority of 100 overs to win the game.
When it comes to the opening slots, due to the presence of many new faces and the absence of regulars – Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, L Rahul becomes an automatic choice to open the innings for India. The Karnataka and India’s Test opener has good technique and excelled in IPL 2016. Based on form and his role as an opener, L Rahul would be one of my openers in the Indian side for the first ODI. There are quite a few players who could be picked to partner Rahul. But Faiz Fazal, one of the surprise inclusions in the Indian squad, could be handed a debut. He is an opening batsman for his state side, Vidarbha, and being a left-hander, Fazal will create a left-right batting combination at the top of the order – an enviable factor.
No. 3 shouldn’t be as complex as the opening slots because there are a plenty of options and players with experience behind them too. Rayudu is one of the batsmen I am talking about, given his experience, technique and the nous for batting at that prestigious position. Lest we forget the success he enjoyed batting at No. 3 during India’s tour of Zimbabwe in 2015. He was the leading run-scorer in the three-match ODI series with 165 runs in just two innings, accruing those runs at a very good strike-rate of 90 runs/100 balls too. If I was Dhoni, I will keep faith in Rayudu’s ability and have him as my No. 3.
The No. 4 position too should not be much of a problem, in terms of who to fit in. It is another key position in the 50-over format, but thanks to the experience available to India, in the form of Dhoni, there should be no confusion. Dhoni is not the same player he was a couple of years ago and has now become more of a nudger who needs time on his hands to construct his innings. At No. 4, Dhoni will have the luxury of time and can dictate the tempo of the Indian innings too.
There is no dearth of options in the middle-order. Pandey, Nair, Jadhav, and Mandeep will vie for two spots, No. 5 and 6, with very little to choose between them. But, since Pandey and Jadhav have played before for India and done quite well too, this duo should be given the nod in India’s playing XI for the first ODI. Dhoni has to get the balance between experienced players and debutants in the playing XI right, throughout Zimbabwe v India 2016.
Coming to the bowling department, it really is a question of whether India want to go in with two spinners and three seamers, or an all-rounder, a spinner and three seamers. The match starts at 9:00 AM local time and there could be a bit of movement in the air and off the pitch, especially with two new white balls. If Dhoni wins the toss, he is likely to decide to field first and give his bowlers a chance to take advantage of whatever purchase available.
Factoring in the early morning start, I would be inclined to include R Dhawan, whose inclusion would mean that Dhoni can only pick either A Patel or Chahal. Dhawan is very much capable of getting the ball to move both ways and Zimbabwe batsmen could well find him difficult to negotiate. Of the two spinners, I would opt for A Patel, who is a better bet than Chahal with the bat. Chahal was the second-highest wicket-taker (21 wickets) in the ninth edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), but will have to wait to make his India and ODI debut.
With eight slots complete, the focus now is with the three remaining places for seamers. Bumrah, who impressed one and all on his ODI debut against Australia and has an eclectic bowling repertoire, is a certainty and I expect him to play all six games of the tour. D Kulkarni, another bowler who had an impressive IPL season and who finished with 18 wickets, will also be an automatic choice in the bowling department because of his form and the experience he has under his belt.
It will be a two-way battle between Sran and Unadkat for the remaining slot in India’s playing XI for the first ODI against Zimbabwe. Sran has had a lot going for him over the last two months: the left-arm seamer was one of the integral members of Sunrisers’ IPL-winning campaign, in which he exuded great rhythm and troubled a lot of batsmen, with his left-arm seam and swing bowling. On the flip side, Unadkat has not played a lot of cricket lately – which also implies that he may not have the bowling rhtyhm of Sran, who also played for India during their tour of Australia earlier this year. Taking into account the aforementioned aspects, Sran should be the one to take up the last bowling slot.
India’s playing XI v Zimbabwe for the first ODI: MS Dhoni (C & WK), L Rahul, Faiz Fazal, A Rayudu, M Pandey, K Jadhav, A Patel, R Dhawan, J Bumrah, D Kulkarni and B Sran, in their possible batting positions.
It’s going to be a challenge for Dhoni to pick India’s playing XI for the first ODI. There are a lot of new faces in this Indian squad and with just three ODIs and T20Is, the captain does not have the luxury to experiment, either at the beginning or after wrapping up the series. But if he goes in with the playing XI mentioned above, India will have balance and thus, be giving themselves a good chance of beating a settled Zimbabwe side.