It’s the dress rehearsal before the actual test, but India would do well not to let the guard down when it takes on a lowly, but effervescent, Ireland in a two-match T20I rubber, starting tomorrow.
The games will mark the onset of a long summer for the Indian team, with sterner tests against England to follow this short series in Malahide, on the outskirts of Dublin. England has just hammered Australia in an ODI series and most of its top players are in sublime form.
Perhaps, it was a marker of this crucial impending assignment that India decided to stay on and practice in London on Monday. While the contingent had arrived from Delhi on Saturday, this was a first training session on-tour, held at the Merchants Taylor School cricket ground.
Reportedly, the players were split into three groups while practising all facets of the game. Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar headed the pace group along with all-rounder Hardik Pandya, while a few others practised fielding drills. Among batsmen, openers Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan enjoyed the first stint together.
Skipper Virat Kohli and the in-form K.L. Rahul batted together in adjacent nets against spin and pace, respectively. While Rahul has been a constant part of the T20I squad, Ajinkya Rahane’s omission from the ODI squad means that he is once again a contender for the number four spot when the three-match series against England begins on July 12.
Since the tour of South Africa, this is the first time a full-strength Indian team will be seen in action. Kohli, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and M.S. Dhoni were rested for the T20I tri-series in Sri Lanka in March. The former trio also missed the one-off Test against Afghanistan in Bengaluru, recently.
With Rahul in contention for a starting spot in the middle order, Manish Pandey, Suresh Raina and Dinesh Karthik will be left jostling for the two spots.
As part of the full-strength Indian side, the three had featured in the T20I series against South Africa. Raina had been used as a pinch-hitting, aggressive number three option, but the current situation might warrant a re-think.
Nevertheless, Raina provides a sixth bowling option as well. India would also not want to drop Dinesh Karthik, who is in sizzling form since March.
It could mean that Pandey eventually warms the bench, despite scoring 255 runs in eight T20Is this year against South Africa, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, at an average of 85.
On the bowling front, Kohli will be tempted to field both leg-spinners, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, giving them an early taste of the conditions, here.
However, the pace department is an area of concern, as the second-choice fast bowlers have not enjoyed enough game time. Since the 2017 Champions Trophy, India has played 32 ODIs and 18 T20Is, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah handling the new ball in 26 ODIs and 9 T20Is, respectively.
Umesh Yadav last played an ODI in September 2017 against Australia at Bengaluru. Siddharth Kaul was in the Indian squad for the home ODIs against Sri Lanka in December, but was not picked ahead of Kumar-Bumrah.
Kaul is also yet to make his T20I debut, while Yadav played his only T20I back in 2012. It remains to be seen if the think tank will bench either Kumar or Bumrah against Ireland to give other pacers some much-needed overs.
India and Ireland do not have a rich playing history. Despite touring England in 2011 and 2014, this is the Men in Blue’s first visit, here, since 2007 when it played a solitary ODI at Belfast.
Rohit, Dhoni and Karthik were part of that squad, albeit Karthik was picked ahead of Dhoni in the playing eleven for that one-off game.
Overall, India and Ireland have played only four times, in three ODIs (the other two during 2011 and 2015 ODI World Cups) and a T20I in 2009 during the World T20 in England.
India had won that game at Nottingham by eight wickets, with Rohit scoring an unbeaten half-century. Dhoni and Raina are the other ‘current’ members from that playing eleven, nine years ago.
For Ireland, skipper Gary Wilson, former captain William Porterfield and all-rounder Kevin O’Brien are the ones to have T20I experience against an Indian team. Meanwhile, 31-year-old Punjab-born off-spinner Simranjit Singh will enjoy the spotlight of playing against his erstwhile nation.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, K.L. Rahul, Manish Pandey, Suresh Raina, Dinesh Karthik, M.S. Dhoni (wk), Hardik Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav, Siddarth Kaul.
Ireland: Gary Wilson (c & wk), Andrew Balbirnie, Peter Chase, George Dockrell, Josh Little, Andy McBrine, Kevin O’Brien, William Porterfield, Stuart Poynter, Boyd Rankin, James Shannon, Simi Singh, Paul Stirling, Stuart Thompson.
Match starts: 8.30 pm IST.