18 November 2019 05:00 AM

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ROHIT SANKAR | 4 JUNE, 2019

Rusty India Look to Topple South Africa: Four Questions for the Playing XI

A long wait-and-watch after the warmup defeat against New Zealand


India's first game of the 2019 Cricket World Cup against South Africa will be the opposition's third game of the tournament. Bruised by England and battered by Bangladesh, South Africa have had a nightmarish start to their World Cup campaign, but India won't be complaining about their opponents.

The scheduling fiasco has meant that India will be rusty as they walk out at Southampton, with no competitive game under their belts for a week before their first match. The switch that should mentally turn on from T20s to ODIs is still on its way for some of the team, as was evident from the warm-up match against New Zealand.

India cannot afford to be complacent despite the shambolic state the Proteas appear to be in. South Africa have a quality bowling attack and will have put their debacles at the Kennington Oval behind them as they take on India at the Hampshire Bowl. Their pace attack, which appeared pedestrian in the first two matches, has enough zip in it to trouble India if the conditions align.

They had the best fast bowling attack coming into the World Cup, and a couple of off days won’t change that.

India's biggest task will be to kickstart their campaign on a strong note. They lost heavily against the Kiwis, underlining the fact that when the ball swings, India still struggle. The extended break and a few selection conundrums headline the team’s World Cup opener against the Proteas. Getting the eleven right will be key, and it means answering these questions.

Who is India's best bet at No.4?

Vijay Shankar was touted to play the role when the team was named by MSK Prasad, but KL Rahul has shot ahead of Shankar, a truly three-dimensional cricketer, with an excellent IPL and a hundred in the warmup game against Bangladesh.

What Rahul adds is an ability to soak up pressure and stand his ground if there is a collapse, besides having a fifth gear if indeed India get off to a good start. The Kings XI Punjab opener is a Test level batsman and has the game for these conditions. A hundred in his final Test in England further boosts Rahul's case.

The ideal combination would have Rahul coming in behind an indomitable top three of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli.

Shami or Bhuvneshwar or both?

This question has been doing the rounds ever since Shami walked back into the limited-overs setup and bowled like he was never away. His hit-the-deck length and sharp bumpers make him an enticing option to partner the more fullish Jasprit Bumrah – but Bhuvneshwar Kumar is supposed to be first in line.

A natural swing bowler, Kumar's ODI record has slowly tapered downhill in the past year, which might work against him if India decide they don't need a third main seamer with Hardik Pandya available.

Should they play both, though, and sacrifice a spinner? So far the World Cup pitches have been two-paced, which could work in favour of Bhuvneshwar's knuckle balls.

But playing both seamers will mean breaking the "Kulcha" combination. Given their success and South Africa's vulnerability against spin, India are unlikely to take this option.

The sixth bowler

We know Hardik Pandya can give 10 overs on his day, but he hasn't done it a whole lot, which means India would like to have backup. Unlike the era of the Yuvrajs and Rainas, India don't have ready made part time options in the top six – but luckily for them, they have a wicket taker in Kedar Jadhav.

Coming back from an injury, Jadhav is a vital cog in this Indian limited-overs machine. He turns the ball, can dart it in and has an uncanny action to go with it. And he has a better strike rate than Jadeja or Pandya since he started to bowl.

Add in his finishing touches with the bat, and Jadhav is an indispensable part of the lineup. Where the main bowlers fall short, Jadhav makes up. It's an infallible template, at least on paper.

Spin twins or the sword king?

As a pair Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal pack a punch. The wrist-spin duo has been pivotal to India's success since the 2017 Champions Trophy, but neither can bat – combined with Shami and Bumrah that makes for an elongated tail.

So will the management bring in Jadeja, who warmed up with a half-century against the Kiwis in the practice game?

Jadeja's ODI record isn't the most impressive, but as an all-rounder he adds an extra zing to the lineup. An electric fielder and a handy batsman down the order, Jadeja could also be used to hold one end up with the ball while the pacers attack from the other.

But India need spinners who can chip in with wickets, and in terms of his strike rate Jadeja comes in behind even Jadhav. The case for the spin twins is compelling.

Probable XI: Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, KL Rahul, MS Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Mohammad Shami, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep Yadav

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