The uncertainty surrounding India's World Cup match(es) against arch-rivals Pakistan following the Pulwama terror attack has effectively overshadowed the run-up to the limited-overs series against visiting Australia.
Even as Indian establishments, including the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), continue to work overtime to isolate Pakistan, Men in Blue will take the field in the home comfort with a single-minded focus on the upcoming World Cup, which starts on May 30.
The series involving two Twenty20 Internationals and five One-Day Internationals will be India's final international outing before the mega-event in England and Wales. And it serves as the audition for the World Cup hopefuls.
World Cup Audition For Pant And Shankar
Virat Kohli, who is back after a well-deserved three-week break, will be keeping a keen eye on the hopefuls when India take on Australia. And the series-opening T20I match at Visakhapatnam will give the skipper and the team think tank the first glimpse of how the team is shaping up.
With most of the spots confirmed in the World Cup squad, the first T20I match at Visakhapatnam on Sunday will be served as the audition for the hopefuls, like flambouyant wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant and all-rounder Vijay Shankar.
Both the players are tipped to join the World Cup squad, but much will depend on their respective performances against Australia.
Having edged out Dinesh Karthik in the ODI side in the race to the World Cup, Pant will get a few more chances to make a strong case for himself.
For Shankar, it will be a great opportunity to make his case even stronger in the absence of Hardik Pandya, who is out with his recurring lower back injury.
Shankar has shown that he could be explosive with the bat and the question will be how effective he can be with the ball.
No one more than Karthik will be more keen to make a statement as these two games will effectively be his last chance as he has already been dropped from the ODIs against Australia.
The Tamil Nadu veteran drew a lot of flak after he refused a single when Krunal Pandya was on a rampage at the other end in the series deciding T20 game against New Zealand which India lost by 4 runs.
Bumrah Bolsters Bowling Attack
With the return of India's no 1 pacer Jasprit Bumrah, the bowling department that distinctly lacked sting against New Zealand, will be bolstered.
Bumrah is two shy of his personal tally of 50 wickets in T20I cricket, an achievement only in possession of the discarded Ravichandran Ashwin.
While rookie leg-break bowler Mayank Markande is in the squad, India in all likelihood will go with the tested pair of Yuzvendra Chahal and Krunal Pandya, who have done reasonably well for the home team in recent times.
Time To Settle Some Score
However, the shortest format is exactly not the one where India have been very consistent. A recent 1-2 series defeat against New Zealand is a testimony.
India may be ahead 11-6 on head-to-head in T20Is but they have drawn 1-1 their last two series against Australia – at home (2017) and away (2018) – with rain playing spoilsport.
This time Kohli's men will look to settle the scores with a 2-0.
It was way back in 2016 when India under MS Dhoni last won against Australia, a 3-0 clean sweep Down Under.
But more than that the series will be a dress rehearsal for the World Cup as Kohli would look to make a final assessment before heading to World Cup in May.
Focus On Captain Kohli
Kohli will look to straightway be back among the runs after a sterling 2018 where he ended the year with an astounding 2735 runs from 38 matches across formats.
He scored 1202 runs in ODIs at a jaw-dropping average of 133.55 in 14 innings and the fact that he converted his scores into six centuries and three fifties speak volumes of his batsmanship.
Kohli averages 61 from 13 T20I innings against Australia with five half-centuries in those games.
News From Aussie Camp
The Aaron Finch-led side may not have played T20Is since their last series against India three months back, but they are fresh from their extended Big Bash League with six players including the skipper featuring in the all-Melbourne final on February 17.
Player of the Tournament D'Arcy Short played 15 BBL games this season for Hobart Hurricanes scoring 637 runs at 53.08 average (140.61 strike rate).
He was followed by competition leading wicket-taker Kane Richardson who topped the bowling aggregate with 24 at 17.70 (economy rate 7.75).
The dynamic left-handed opener Short will look to improve his stats on the turning pitches and relaunch his career giving them a good start.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Rohit Sharma (vc), KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Rishabh Pant (wk), Dinesh Karthik (wk), MS Dhoni (wk), Krunal Pandya, Vijay Shankar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav, Sidharth Kaul, Mayank Markande.
Australia: Aaron Finch (c), D'Arcy Short, Pat Cummins, Alex Carey (wk), Jason Behrendorff, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Peter Handscomb, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Glenn Maxwell, Jhye Richardson, Kane Richardson, Marcus Stoinis, Ashton Turner, Adam Zampa.
Match starts at 7PM IST.
(With PTI inputs)