Mumbai, March 16
Star all-rounder Hardik Pandya's leadership skills and India's overall World Cup preparedness will be under focus when the home side begin their three-match ODI series against Australia here on Friday.
Pandya will captain the Indian team in the absence of regular skipper Rohit Sharma, who is unavailable for the first ODI at the Wankhede Stadium due to family commitments.
The day-night match will be Pandya's first as captain in an ODI, though he is the regular India skipper in the T20 format. He is also the designated vice-captain for the ODI series.
Collectively as a team, the focus will shift from winning the four-match Test series for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and qualifying for the World Test Championships final in June against the same opponents -- Australia -- to starting preparations for the 50-over World Cup the country is hosting later this year.
Keeping in mind that India had won the title the last time the country hosted the tournament-- with MS Dhoni's team winning the trophy in 2011 -- similar expectations will be from Sharma and company.
The expectations will be particularly high because the Indian team is a different beast in any format while playing at home. Moreover, the unwanted record of not doing well enough in the knockout matches of the ICC hounding this group of players, the team will be desperate to turn things around.
India will also look to make the most of the incredible start they have had in ODIs at home this year, winning all six matches in total -- against Sri Lanka and New Zealand in two separate series.
With 567 runs and three centuries in just six ODIs, and averaging 113.40, Shubman Gill has made a cracking start to the World Cup year and Sharma's absence in the first match will put more limelight on the right-handed batter, who is coming off a quality Test century against Australia in the fourth and final match in Ahmedabad.
Batting maestro Virat Kohli had left the lean patch in white-ball cricket far behind, and his 338 runs in six matches at 67.60 indicate that the run-machine can be expected to add more to the 75 centuries that he has accumulated in international cricket so far.
Kohli’s battle with Australia leg-spinner Adam Zampa is one of the match-ups to watch out for, with the bowler having had considerable success against the star India batter.
Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal bowled in tandem in the nets during an optional training session on Wednesday here, and the two leg-spinners can form a vital weapon in India's attack given their knack of taking wickets and past record of domination in white-ball cricket.
With 11 wickets in five matches, Kuldeep has so far been India's best spinner, while among fast bowlers, Mohammed Siraj is far ahead with 14 scalps in as many outings.
The Indians will be wary of the fact that the five-time World Cup winners Australia have enough firepower in their ranks to pull off wins, despite the absence of regular captain Pat Cummins who has decided to be with his family after the passing of her mother.
Cummins' absence will be felt by the visiting team as it also looks to finalise its preparations for the World Cup in October-November this year.
Like he did in the last two matches of the Test series, the wily Steve Smith will lead Australia in the ODI series as well.
While Cummins and Josh Hazlewood are not available for this ODI series, veteran batter David Warner and all-rounder Ashton Agar, who both had returned home during the Test series, are back in India with the national squad.
Australia also have not played any ODI cricket in three-and-a-half months of this year, with their focus being trained completely on the WTC final berth.
With that objective achieved, the visiting side will want to approach these three ODIs with the best possible opportunity to prepare for challenges ahead under Smith.
Australia will also draw inspiration from the fact that the last time they played here, they had handed India a 10-wicket defeat with Warner and Aaron Finch -- now retired -- hitting unbeaten centuries.
The Teams (From):
India: Hardik Pandya (captain), Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav, K L Rahul, Ishan Kishan (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Washington Sundar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Mohd Shami, Mohd Siraj, Umran Malik, Shardul Thakur, Axar Patel, Jaydev Unadkat.
Australia: Steven Smith (captain), David Warner, Travis Head, Marnus Labuschagne, Mitchell Marsh, Marcus Stoinis, Alex Carey, Glenn Maxwell, Cameron Green, Josh Inglis, Sean Abbott, Ashton Agar, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Ellis, Adam Zampa.
Match starts: 1:30pm IST.
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