India have flexed their bench strength and have tried various team combinations in the past few months. Yet, they still seem unsure of what their best ODI XI is, writes Shashwat Kumar.

India lost three bilateral ODI series this year (in South Africa, New Zealand, and Bangladesh), and two ODI series in a row in Bangladesh. In their last series, in Bangladesh, each time they took the field, though, they either seemed a bowler light or a batter short, which is not a good look, considering they host the ODI World Cup in less than a year’s time.

India seem to have a problem of plenty. Countless players have been tried and discarded in 2022, impacting the continuity in the side. This has also shrouded players with uncertainty, for they do not really know what is expected of them to become regular fixtures and usurp the established order.

How long can India live off the past riches of their top three?

Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli are behemoths of ODI cricket. For much of the 2010s, India’s batting fortunes revolved around them and they responded, plundering runs by the thousands. In the past couple of years, however, a few chinks began to appear in what had once seemed an impregnable armour.

Since the start of 2020, the three have combined to score just two hundreds – and that includes one by Kohli in India’s last ODI of the year. Until that hundred, Kohli endured a rare barren run in the format, averaging less than he ever has in a calendar year. Dhawan, meanwhile, has struck under 75 in 2022.

On the other side of that spectrum is Shubman Gill, who has scored 638 ODI runs in 2022 at 70.88, and at a strike rate in excess of 100. Ruturaj Gaikwad has also been in a rich vein of form in domestic cricket and has the best average in the history of List A cricket with a 50-innings cut-off, but neither was included for the Bangladesh tour. Add Ishan Kishan to that list, who scored a double century on his only outing in Bangladesh, and you feel the time is right for these hungry cricketers to be thrown into the deep end.

Whenever they make the cut, though, it is highly likely that one or maybe two of India’s famed top three would be absent (rested, injured or otherwise). And when the likes of Dhawan, Kohli and Rohit return, history suggests that hierarchy would reign over recent performances. So, the narrative of India not picking the right players when they need to be selected could continue.

The middle muddle ft. Rahul, Pant, Shreyas, Suryakumar and many others

Right. This is a scrap. If India stick to their top three, and if Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja are fit, there are only two spots to fill. The number of candidates, meanwhile, are plenty. So, choosing the wrong alternative is an even greater possibility in this department.

KL Rahul has been brilliant in the middle order, and can keep wickets too. Shreyas Iyer has not put a foot wrong in ODI cricket, and would feel hard done by if he were to be excluded. But then, you also have the mercurial talents of Rishabh Pant and Suryakumar Yadav – players who might not be as consistent as Rahul and Iyer, but can destroy any attack on their day. Oh, and Sanju Samson is also lurking around the corner somewhere, hoping that he gets an opportunity.

These players have hardly been part of the same squad together when the top three is also around. So, while India have many eye-watering options in the middle order, they are unsure of what exactly they need to be doing, because too many opportunities have been given to too many players without really allowing them the time to settle into a particular role.

The bowling musical chairs is not much better

Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami are world-class bowlers. But what happens if neither is in pristine condition, as has been the case quite often of late? India have tried out several different bowlers but have not looked at anyone long enough to pencil them down as a potential replacement.

Mohammed Siraj is perhaps the furthest ahead in this pecking order, but barring him, players have just not played adequate cricket. Umran Malik debuted in New Zealand, but was excluded altogether for the Bangladesh series, only to be included once Shami was injured. Prasidh Krishna has been nursing a back injury for some time, while Arshdeep Singh, another debutant against in New Zealand, did not travel to Bangladesh. Deepak Chahar has been injury-prone as well, while Shardul Thakur has hardly benefitted from intermittent ODI appearances.

Injuries have not helped India’s cause, but they are part and parcel of the sport. What is in India’s control is avoiding the constant chopping and changing – something that they have not done. At this point they boast of an enviable pool of fast bowlers; yet, they overly rely on pacers who have a patchy injury record.

In many ways, the Indian team management have resembled a scientist who has too many raw ingredients at their disposal but experiments so much that they forget the concoction that actually needs to be brewed. When they need to revert to the original objective, there is often confusion, because every ingredient seems untested.

Having multiple options has historically been considered a virtue, simply because of the myriad possibilities. Unfortunately, having too many options, as India have found out lately, can be a vice – not because the burden of choosing the right personnel is greater, but also because the urge to do something different, just for the sake of it and because they are in a position to do so, is almost inescapable.

That is primarily why India, less than a year away from the ODI World Cup, seem to have no clue about their first-choice eleven. Based on hierarchy, and past achievements, they might have a blueprint. If that would be good enough to win them the title, though, is another discussion altogether.