Perth: MS Dhoni-led India will look to get their combination right as they renew their fierce rivalry against a confident Australia in the first of the five-match ODI series starting here today, marking the onset of a long limited-overs schedule stretching until the World T20.
The short limited overs series, including five ODIs and three T20 internationals, Down Under will initiate the Indian team's preparations for the marquee ICC World T20 scheduled in March-April. The T20 games will be played after the five ODIs, and Dhoni's boys would like to carry the momentum in the shortest format.
While India won both their warm-up games -- a T20 and 50-over match each -- against the second string Western Australia XI, it is certainly not the best indicator of the kind of challenge they will face from Steve Smith's men.
India did not have a great 2015 when they came to the 50-over format as they lost back-to-back series to Bangladesh (away) and South Africa (at home). Skipper Dhoni will like to turn the tables in the new year but will rue the fact that one of his best pace weapons, Mohammed Shami, has been ruled out due to a hamstring injury even before the first ball has been bowled. But there are certain aspects that might also relieve Dhoni.
The fact that David Warner may not be available for better part of the series and with Mitchell Starc or the now retired Mitchell Johnson not there, the Aussie bowling attack comprising Josh Hazlewood, Joel Paris, Scott Boland and Jimmy Faulkner looks thin on experience.
As far as his own bowling attack is concerned, Dhoni has been fretting over the possible playing XI combinations. His most experienced bowler Ishant Sharma did not play any of the two warm-up games, so it's not known whether he would be playing in the opening game.
With three pacers almost certain to play at the WACA, which is the bounciest of Australian pitches, there are high chances that left-arm pacer Barinder Sran could win his maiden India cap alongside Ishant and Umesh Yadav.
The lanky Sran looked impressive in both the practice matches with both pace and swing in his armoury. With a deceptive short ball, Sran could prove to be a handful, complementing Ishant and Umesh.
The two experienced spin-bowling all-rounders Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja will make up the five-pronged bowling attack for India.
The batting unit looks more or less settled with Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan in the opening slots followed by vice captain Virat Kohli at No 3. Ajinkya Rahane is expected at No 4 and one might find the Indian captain batting at No 5.
In the middle-order, the No 6 slot will see a new face. One among Manish Pandey or Gurkeerat Singh will be playing in slot that got vacated due to Suresh Raina's exclusion from the squad.
Manish Pandey, who made an impressive ODI debut against Zimbabwe last year, staked his claim with a 58 in the practice game, but Gurkeerat has been a consistent performer for Punjab and India A.
Dhoni always doesn't go by scores in warm-up games so it would not be surprising if he picks Gurkeerat ahead of Manish in the end.
The other option could be seamer all-rounder Rishi Dhawan. But the pace at which he bowls, and his batting abilities on this kind of track, has not really been tested.
The year is going to be important for Dhoni, who has been named captain till the end of World T20.
The selectors wanted to send a message by putting an end to the question mark over his leadership. But the man himself knows that he has to up the ante and perform for his team. India need Dhoni to produce match-winning efforts, which have been few and far between in recent times. It will be interesting to see where Dhoni comes into bat. For him, a lot will depend on how his pace battery delivers. During the World Cup last year, the trio of Umesh, Shami and Mohit bowled like well-oiled machines even though the Bengal pacer was on injections to lessen the excruciating pain
on his knee.
It won't be easy to stem the flow of runs if Australia skipper Smith gets going. Warner, for whatever time he is available, would be a threat looming large on the bowlers. His sheer presence can be intimidating. Aaron Finch and Glenn Maxwell can take apart any bowling on their day.
Then there is former captain George Bailey, a very competent player in this format and someone who can build an innings. James Faulkner's prowess as a batsman is well known to the Indians and especially Ishant Sharma, who was hammered during the 2013 series.
In the larger scheme of things then, Team India couldn't have asked for a better challenge to kick-start their preparation for the ICC event two months down the road. Immediate concerns are aplenty though, ranging from solving the batting order equation to finding the right balance with the bowling attack. Starting with the latter, Shami's hamstring injury is a big blow to Indian hopes.
The pacer spent a considerable time away from the game since the 2015 ODI World Cup, but it cannot be denied that he was the spearhead of the attack in the limited-overs arena. During their last trip here in 2014-15, he was the most improved bowler across four-plus months spent, and it showed in the manner he picked 17 wickets in the World Cup.
Stretching back to 2011-12, this is Yadav's fourth visit to Australia, and he will be eager to showcase that experience on the field.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar had suffered at their hands too, and it will be interesting to see if he regains his place in the XI, after being called as Shami's replacement. Ishant is back in the ODI fold again, after missing out on the World Cup last year owing to injury. The duo will fight it out for the third pacer spot, for Sran, with his left-arm angle and extra pace, is in line for his debut.
India will surely look to play five bowlers, and in the 50-over warm-up game, all three spinners in the squad picked up two wickets each. It isn't going to deter Dhoni's plan of fielding R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja ahead of Axar Patel.
A day ahead of the game, Australia have already named the playing eleven. 23-year-old left-arm quick Joel Paris and 26-year-old Scott Boland have been handed their ODI debuts. Mitchell Marsh and James Faulkner will make it a pace-heavy attack.
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (captain and wk), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Gurkeerat Singh Mann, Manish Pandey, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Barinder Sran, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Axar Patel, Rishi Dhawan
Australia: Steve Smith (captain), Aaron Finch, David Warner, George Bailey, Glenn Maxwell, Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh, James Faulkner, Matthew Wade (WK), Kane Richardson, Josh Hazlewood, Joel Paris, Scott Boland.
The match starts at 0850 hrs (IST).