I must admit I was as excited as a young lad on my first date when I first heard of the Indian cricket schedule for 2016-17. Not too often have India played so many Tests in a season, and more so at home which would have given the captain Virat Kohli a chance to get a firm foothold as the leader of his men before India embarked upon some sterner tours.
But a deeper inspection into the schedule made me wonder if the people who matter had cleanly forgotten about the Champions Trophy that will be held in the UK from June 1.
13 home Tests deserves a pat on the schedulers’ back. But just eight ODIs in nearly 12 months to the lead-up to the second most prestigious ODI tournament makes one want to question their rationale behind the same. India’s last ODI game before the Champions Trophy has already been played – India went down fighting to England in the third and final ODI on January 22, leaving a gap of more than four months before they don the fifty-over blues again.
There’s obviously the Indian Premier League in the interim period – which incidentally finishes little over a week before the start of the Champions Trophy – but the question is if playing in a domestic T20 tournament practice enough going into a major 50-over tournament like the Champions Trophy.
What makes it slightly harder for most teams, not the least one which goes in without too many internationals under their belt, is that sides play three games apiece. One defeat and teams are left with the arduous task of needing to win four games on the bounce to go the distance and two losses in those three games could all but finish off a side’s chances.
Some might argue that playing in 14 Indian Premier League games is practice enough. After all, it’s not so much about batting or bowling training as much the players at that level need match practice and that’s exactly what they will be getting during the Indian Premier League. They will be rubbing shoulders with the best of those around the world and that should obviously account for something if not everything.
For skeptics like I admittedly was, here’s the kicker.
The last two times India participated in an ICC-organised 50-over-a-side competition, something out of the ordinary has happened already. Roll the years back to the 2013 edition of the Champions Trophy in which India edged out England in that pulsating, rain-affected final and you will realise they had flown to England with a similar build-up.
In 2013, they last played an ODI series in January of that year, which incidentally came against England again. That was followed by a Test series against Australia – which is what happens this year too – before the IPL preceded the Champions Trophy. Not too different from their build-up this year then? Four odd months of no ODI cricket, just Tests and IPL and bang, India go on to lift the Champions Trophy.
The build-up to the 2015 World Cup was slightly different in that the Indian team looked rather jaded going into it. After playing in both formats of the game, Tests and ODIs months leading into the World Cup, the Indian captain MS Dhoni had decided to give his side a break before and during the World Cup.
From having won nothing in the Tests and ODIs on the tour of Australia that preceded the World Cup, those breaks pulled India to a near tournament-winning performance – they won seven games in a row to make the semi-final before falling to the hosts and eventual champions, Australia. It was an amazing transformation that finished up in the footnotes of cricketing history because, sadly for India, they failed at the penultimate hurdle.
But as preparations go, the ones before the 2013 Champions Trophy and 2015 World Cup were vastly different ones and despite that, India dished out performances that were quite similar. Lot of it, therefore, is down to player confidence and fitness, more than playing in some meaningless ODI games before the start of such tournaments.
Having said that, it’s not to say India have solutions to a few of their problems going into the Champions Trophy. Near-conundrums that will rely on the players’ performances during the Indian Premier League to solve.
Despite Virat Kohli’s assertions to the contrary, the opening slots need to be looked at closely. Because unless Kohli is planning to launch a coup-of-sorts by walking out to open in Birmingham on June 4, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane are in similar boats as far as their chances of sealing those two slots.
Manish Pandey might have been edged out by Yuvraj Singh and Kedar Jadhav as their finisher for now but four months is a long time in cricket. And the question many are asking is whether Hardik Pandya has done enough to seal his spot as an all-rounder at that number seven position or should, erm, Stuart Binny be given another go. That’s probably not what they are asking anyway but you get the gist.
And there’s that ever eternal question – why is Umesh Yadav, with an ODI bowling average of 33.69 and economy-rate of over six an over, part of the squad?
It is difficult to see any wide-spread changes to either the squad or the playing XI, because with just an IPL to gauge their performance, Kohli and co. are probably at a stage where they will prefer backing the set of players they have invested their faith in rather than chase talented, but unheralded players.