On the face of it, the three-match ODI series between India and Australia, as Pakistan legend Wasim Akram pointed out recently, is pretty much a needless exercise. Squeezed just before the 2023 World Cup, it leaves both the teams with a potential danger of injuring their top players, or at least leaving them jaded.
The first ODI at Mohali on Friday will mark the start of Team India’s ‘Bharat Darshan,’ which will involve travelling to as many as 14 cities till November 12 – no mean task even for seasoned backpackers.
However, a deeper look at things will tell you that this series does have some value for both the teams. For India, who are just fresh off the Asia Cup triumph, these games offer the best chance to find, hopefully, a final answer to the ‘ R Ashwin question’ in white-ball cricket, which keeps popping up every few years.
With left-arm spinner Axar Patel out due to a left quadriceps strain, India have gone back to their old warhorse, off-spinner, who has just turned 37. Having been put on alert since Axar’s injury, Ashwin has done all the right things-trained at the NCA, bowled 10 overs in a local league game in Chennai, but nothing can replace the value of this outing – resuming his battle with the likes of Steve Smith and David Warner on featherbeds.
Ashwin last played ODIs for India 18 months ago against South Africa in South Africa. Making a comeback in this format after four-and-half years, he wasn’t too successful in that series, taking 1-53 in 10 overs & 0-68 in 10 overs in the final two games.
Previously, he was dropped in 2017 after enduring an ordinary time in the Champions Trophy in England. Still, a few factors make Ashwin’s unexpected recall at this hour understandable. His rich experience – 151 wickets in 113 ODIs@33.49, the presence of dangerous left-handers in almost every opposition and the likelihood of wickets which aid spin during India’s World Cup matches in the 2023 ODI World Cup – all indicate there may be a place for Ashwin after all.
India have also rested their lead spinner Kuldeep Yadav, putting the focus on Ashwin. For starters, the offie would have to stave off competition from Washington Sundar.
The other issue is the fitness status of Shreyas Iyer. Picked for the Asia Cup, all the middle order batsman played was two games – in the one against Pakistan, the 28-year-old scored 14, and against Nepal he didn’t get to bat. Thereafter, he sat out due to back spasms for four games on a trot, certainly not a good sign for someone returning after a long layoff.
With skipper Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli and even allrounder Hardik Pandya resting for the first two games, the likes of Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav, who have endured an ordinary time in the ODIs, will need to assert themselves in this series.
Australia will be bolstered by the return of skipper Pat Cummins and Steve Smith from injuries.