India look to solve middle-order puzzle as WC countdown begins
By Tapan Mohanta
Guwahati, Oct 20 (PTI) A formidable India will hope to get more answers for their unresolved middle-order puzzle when they take on a reeling West Indies in the five-match ODI series starting here Sunday, ticking off the home team's countdown to the 2019 World Cup.
The World Cup in England is less than eight months away and India have 18-odd games left to decide their middle order, mainly the number four position where many have been tried but with little success.
The series will also mark captain Virat Kohli's return to white-ball cricket as he had taken a much needed break during the team's triumphant campaign in Asia Cup.
Kohli is expected try out a new combination in the middle order that will see Rishabh Pant make his ODI debut, following his exploits in the longest format.
The 21-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman, who scored a century at the Oval in his debut series against England, continued his sublime form with consecutive scores of 92 against the West Indies in the two-match Test series.
Brought in the side as a 'specialist batsman' at the expense of Dinesh Karthik, Pant will be under a little bit of pressure to perform from the world go.
The focus once again will be on MS Dhoni, whose batting ability is on the wane and with limited playing time in the middle, the job gets only tougher for the legendary cricketer. However, chief selector MSK Prasad has time and again said that Dhoni remains the first choice wicketkeeper at least till the World Cup.
Dhoni was far from his best in the Asia Cup, scoring 77 runs in four innings with an average of 19.25 and a strike rate of 62.09.
In whole of 2018, he has batted 10 times in 15 matches, averaging 28.12 with a strike rate of 67.36. He will be playing the World Cup in England, a country where he is yet to score a century in 20 ODIs and averages 38.06, a sharp drop from his career average of 50.61.
While the top-three select themselves, the spotlight will also be on Ambati Rayudu , who is expected to bat four and will look to carry forward his fine form of Asia Cup where he amassed 175 runs, averaging 43.75 from six innings. However, time may be running out for Manish Pandey as he is yet to cement his place in the team after making his debut more than three years ago.
India will also have the services of all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja in the lower-order and in the absence of injured Hardik Pandya, he will have to step-up. The preceding Test series was productive for the southpaw and so was the Asia Cup, where he made his ODI comeback after a year's gap.
Looking at the bowling attack, the spin department will see the potent duo of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, while fast bowlers Mohammad Shami and an in-form Umesh Yadav will share the workload in the absence of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, who have been rested for the first two ODIs.
Rookie left-arm pacer Khaleel Ahmed, who impressed in the two matches he played in Asia Cup, will look to grab the opportunity.
Unlike the Tests, the West Indies were expected to be much more competitive in ODIs but they are grappling with multiple woes.
Dynamic opener Evin Lewis has withdrawn from the ODI series citing personal reasons, dealing another blow to the side which is already missing Chris Gayle and Andre Russell.
To make matters worse, coach Stuart Law, who is into his penultimate assignment with the team, will not be allowed in the dressing room in the first two ODIs due to a breach of ICC's code of conduct.
However, the team has veteran Marlon Samuels, captain and all-rounder Jason Holder and pacer Kemar Roach. The squad features three uncapped players -- opener Chandrapaul Hemraj, all-rounder Fabian Allen and pacer Oshane Thomas.
The ninth ranked side lost 1-2 to Bangladesh in its last ODI assignment and has not won a series since 2014.
The venue, Barsapara Stadium, will be hosting its second international match after staging the debut game, a T20 between India and Australia last year. The game had made headlines for wrong reasons after the visiting team's bus was attacked on way to the hotel.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Ambati Rayudu, Manish Pandey, MS Dhoni, Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, K Khaleel Ahmed, Lokesh Rahul, Umesh Yadav.
West Indies: Jason Holder (c), Fabian Allen, Sunil Ambris, Devendra Bishoo, Chanderpaul Hemraj, Shimron Hetmyer, Shai Hope, Alzarri Joseph, Kieran Powell, Ashley Nurse, Keemo Paul, Rovman Powell, Kemar Roach, Marlon Samuels, Oshane Thomas and Obed McCoy.
Match starts 1.30pm