Warm-up matches before a team’s international series help the visiting country’s players firm up on combinations and get acclimatised to the conditions. For the home team, it’s often a chance to test out those on the fringes of national selection against international opposition to see who has it in them to make the cut for the next grade.
In 2012-13, England were served with a googly before their Test series, with the previous Sandeep Patil-led selection committee naming a side without a single specialist spinner to take on the Englishmen. The squads picked before their one-day series were more conventional, and both M Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan used the opportunity to make impressive cases. Vijay hit an attractive 75 for India A at Palam, and Dhawan smashed a superb century for Delhi in a steep chase at the Feroz Shah Kotla in January 2013. A month later, both were in the Test team to face Australia, and shortly after that, had become India’s regular Test opening pair.
For England’s limited-overs series in India, consisting of three One-Day Internationals and three Twenty20 Internationals starting January 15, the scenario is slightly different. India will once again face Australia for a four-Test series shortly after finishing up with white-ball cricket against England and there is another new selection panel in place, but that’s where the similarity ends. For one thing, the Indian Test team is a lot more settled – and winning – than it was in 2012-13, and for another, it’s the ODI side that is more in flux.
The MSK Prasad-led panel has gone for a mixture of youth and experience for the two warm-up games on Tuesday (January 10) and Thursday in Mumbai. On one hand, there is room for returning veterans in Yuvraj Singh and Ashish Nehra to get game-time ahead of the international matches. Prasad had earlier indicated that those who have had a spell out through injuries would also be given an opportunity and therefore Ambati Rayudu, Mohit Sharma (in the first match) and Ajinkya Rahane (in the second match) have been included. On the other hand, there is a good sprinkling of youngsters who have the talent, potential – or both.
Here, Wisden India casts an eye over what could be the factors to look out for in the warm-up matches for the Indians involved.
Yuvraj Singh – is the recall a gamble worth taking?
It’s not fair for anyone to be on trial from the first match, but the reality of the situation is that most eyes will be trained on Yuvraj. The man would walk into any all-time Indian XI, of that there is no dispute. Whether he should have walked in quite so easily into the current Indian team is up for fierce debate. There are sound cricketing arguments against Yuvraj’s selection: His most recent limited-overs form has been nothing to rave about, he was far from convincing during his last comeback in India blues, and he’s not exactly a young, hopeful tyro in whom it bears investing time for the future. Because of this, he will be under the microscope from the very first warm-up match. It’s an unfair burden for any cricketer to bear. On the credit side of the ledger, Yuvraj has borne far more and emerged triumphant.
MS Dhoni, leader one last time
Dhoni will be leading the India A side for the first match, and it could well be the final time anyone sees him skipper a side in an international fixture. He could still captain Rising Pune Supergiants in the Indian Premier League, but the match on January 10 might be the last time we see Dhoni marshalling a team at this level. Will the old fox pull a new rabbit out of his hat for one grand finale?
Ashish Nehra and Suresh Raina in 50-over cricket
For different reasons, both men who have had some great results in ODIs in the past are not part of the ODI squad. Both will have a warm-up game each though. For Nehra, it will be about seeing whether he can last the distance in a 50-over contest. His last comeback, albeit only in the 20-over format, was very successful, with India’s new-ball bowling getting the teeth that seemed to have deserted them. Nehra was incisive and economical enough, a rare combination. If he can replicate what he does in four overs for 10 overs, India’s pace attack will be considerably strengthened. Especially with the Champions Trophy defence looming. For Raina, it’s a chance to show he still has the explosive power to be a force at the death. If Dhoni does make a move up the order, the No.5 and 6 spots will be crying out for someone of Raina’s skills of yore. That he still has it is what Raina will be bent on showing.
Kuldeep Yadav v Shahbaz Nadeem
Each spinner has been picked for one game, with Kuldeep getting first go and Nadeem second. Nadeem’s recent domestic record of 107 wickets across two Ranji seasons brooks no argument. But Kuldeep too has impressed those who’ve seen him. In an otherwise lacklustre season for the Uttar Pradesh team, Kuldeep had 466 runs at 35.84 including a century, and 35 wickets at 27.42, easily among the best all-round performances of the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy. The spin department for India is well-stocked. R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Jayant Yadav should be first-choice for Tests, while Amit Mishra and Yuzvendra Chahal are in the mix with the white ball. With the amount of cricket lined up and the attendant injuries and loss of form, the next two in line ought be Kuldeep and Nadeem. Which one will get first call, should the need arise? How they do against England could play a part in that.
Youngsters to watch out for
The first game will have Sanju Samson, Yuzvendra Chahal and Hardik Pandya. The second has Rishabh Pant, Ishan Kishan and Deepak Hooda. Pandya and Chahal have already made the cut for the internationals, but they are still very raw at the international level. The other four have all been spoken of as potential India players. Pant, Kishan and Hooda were among those who lit up the Ranji Trophy with their strokeplay and an impressive showing against an international attack could be the booster shot their careers need to go still higher. Samson was embroiled in an unsavoury episode with the Kerala Cricket Association, which ironically enough began at a match in the Cricket Club of India. What better way to silence critics than with the bat at the same venue?