Rishabh Pant needs more chances and Vijay Shankar checks in: India's Antipodean tour takeaways

With the Cricket World Cup approaching, here is a look at some of the interesting storylines

Indian fans celebrate after New Zealand's Tim Seifert was dismissed during the third Twenty20 international cricket match between New Zealand and India in Hamilton on February 10, 2019. / AFP / MICHAEL BRADLEY
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The India cricket team had, shall we say, an Indian summer on their tours of Australia and New Zealand that drew to a close on Sunday.

In Australia, a short and then long intervention of rain meant their Twenty20 series ended at 1-1. Thereafter India won their first Test series on Australian soil (2-1) and followed it up by also winning their first one-day international series Down Under (also 2-1).

They carried that confidence across the Tasman Sea to clinch the ODI series 3-2 before being narrowly beaten 2-1 in the T20s.

New Zealand captain Kane Williamson was keen to highlight that the T20 series result would have no bearing on their preparations for the Cricket World Cup from May 30-July 14; naturally, the formats are different.

But India will likely view their Antipodean trip as a package tour to gauge which players are likely to make the squad for cricket's flagship tournament in England and Wales. Some interesting storylines have duly emerged.

India's Rishabh Pant plays a shot during the second Twenty20 international cricket match between New Zealand and India in Auckland on February 8, 2019. / AFP / MICHAEL BRADLEY
Rishabh Pant is not yet a permanent fixture of India's ODI side, but it is probably only a matter of time. Michael Bradley / AFP

Pant at doorstep of ODI side

Rishabh Pant may have played in nine Tests and 13 T20s, but he has represented India in just three ODIs – all of them coming against the West Indies last year. Curious, perhaps, but chief selector MSK Prasad’s rationale for not giving the 21-year-old more games had much to do with the need for Pant to mature.

The previously “thick-skinned” Pant has, instead, had the chance to develop with the India ‘A’ side, and Prasad seems to believe the wicketkeeper-batsman is now prepared for ODI cricket.

Whether he makes the World Cup squad depends on how he plays in the limited opportunities he gets between now and May. Hopefully Prasad will pay heed to former captain Sunil Gavaskar’s remark on the need to pick him for the home series against Australia this month.

Lack of consistency and a tendency to be over-aggressive with the bat are still issues. But the fact he was the second-highest run-scorer in the Tests against Australia and scored a match-winning cameo in the second T20 against New Zealand prove he is one for the future.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 06: Vijay Shankar of India during game one of the International T20 Series between the New Zealand Black Caps and India at Westpac Stadium on February 06, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Vijay Shankar can play as a proper batsman even as he develops his bowling skills. Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images

Vijay makes surprise charge

Vijay Shankar is a seam-bowling all-rounder, just like Hardik Pandya, yet the differences between the players are stark.

Pandya is just as good a bowler as he is a batsman; Vijay is a batsman whose bowling is still a work in progress. Pandya is flashy; Vijay seems like a regular Joe. Pandya provides the X-factor; Vijay’s is a steady game.

It is why there seems to be room for both players in the XI – at least when India are fielding a below-strength side. The good thing is Vijay did well with the opportunities he got. Had it not been for his steady hand, India may well have lost the last ODI, albeit in a dead rubber, against New Zealand on a challenging pitch at Wellington.

He also did reasonably with the bat in the T20s, although he did not get a chance to bowl. He may still not make the final cut, but he will be considered given his game is suited to the conditions in England. He is also an option for the No 4 slot, should any of the other batsmen fail.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 03: Mohammed Shami of India bowls during game five in the One Day International series between New Zealand and India at Westpac Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Mohammed Shami is back to leading India's pace attack in the limited-overs game. Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images

Shami’s shine is real

Through 2017 and 2018, injury problems and off-field distractions relating to his marital life threatened to derail the career of Mohammed Shami.

The fast bowler was also playing more Tests than limited-overs matches which meant there was a very real chance of him not making the World Cup squad. But in a matter of a few weeks, the right-armer has made himself undroppable.

He took 14 wickets in seven ODIs (three in Australia, four in New Zealand) and was part of the winning side in six of those matches.

Shami bowls at a decent pace, is disciplined – much needed in 50-over cricket – and gets the ball to move in the air and off the deck, which makes him an attractive proposition in English conditions.

Having played 59 ODIs, he is not short of experience either.

Indian cricketer Ajinkya Rahane bats during the second day of the second cricket test match between India and West Indies in Hyderabad, India, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)
Ajinkya Rahane is vice captain of India's Test side but has not played ODI cricket since last February. Mahesh Kumar A / AP Photo

Still a way in for Rahane

Ajinkya Rahane last played an ODI on February 16, 2018, and the fact he was not missed in the 50-over matches in Australia and New Zealand means he is not a shoo-in for the World Cup.

But there is little doubt he is in the selectors’ plans as a back-up opener should mainstays Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan get injured. Rahane has been in good nick for India ‘A’ although his strike-rate is still only in the upper 70s – not seen as good enough in today’s game.

He lends solidity so he might even slot into one of the middle-order positions. Besides, he has plenty of international experience and is vice captain of the Test team so he should at least keep his fingers crossed yet.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 15: Lokesh Rahul of India is bowled by Josh Hazlewood of Australia during day two of the second match in the Test series between Australia and India at Perth Stadium on December 15, 2018 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Lokesh Rahul could not have better timed his lack of runs, with a World Cup round the corner. Ryan Pierse / Getty Images

Karnataka duo hit wall

With so little time left, it seems all but certain neither Lokesh Rahul not Manish Pandey will feature in the World Cup.

While Prasad insists Pandey remains a back-up option, Rahul could not have timed his lack of runs and disciplinary issues better.

Both Karnataka batsmen played their last ODI at the Asia Cup in Dubai against Afghanistan. Rahul scored a fifty even as Pandey missed out. And while Rahul’s form was woeful during the Test series against Australia, Pandey did not even feature in the limited-overs series.