For a series that has generated more buzz about the impending challenges that await hosts across the Cape of Good Hope than what their current rivals can possibly conjure, the third One-Day International (ODI) against Sri Lanka in Visakhapatnam offers a modicum of much-needed relevance. Lose this, and all the build-up about the South Africa tour takes a slightly pessimistic detour; win it, and the momentum stays.
Such has been hosts’ dominance this year that Sri Lanka’s commanding win in Dharamsala ODI and gutsy performances in the preceding Tests — Delhi and Kolkata in particular — have remained tiny footnotes in India’s eulogy. Yet, complacency would be the last thing on Rohit Sharma’s mind when he, fresh from his mind-numbing third double ton, walks out for the toss on Sunday.
This being the decider means Rohit would be inclined to field an unchanged XI, but recent history suggests dropping a pacer for an extra spinner might not be a preposterous proposition.
The last time India played an ODI at this important Naval base, Amit Mishra torpedoed the visiting New Zealand in what was also a series-decider. From 62/2, the Kiwis sunk to 79 all-out.
That track though had no real demons; it was a sluggish, low turner where timing the shots became paramount. Sri Lanka are traditionally better at countering spin than the Kiwis, so such collapse, theoretically at least, appears far-fetched. However, that does present the temptation of ramping up the slow-bowling arsenal.
The 1:30 pm start means dew remains a factor, which explains why skippers winning the toss here prefer to bowl first. The cool, evening sea-breeze does aid early swing for teams bowling second, but as night wears on and dew begins to appear, gripping the ball becomes increasingly difficult.
Four of the six completed matches at this venue have been won by teams batting second — an occurrence aided in no small measure by slippery ball and quicker outfield. Perhaps Dhoni, who led the side when they last played here, knew that, for he introduced spin in the eighth over itself, before dew could take effect.
The first ODI here, however, had India batting first after winning the toss in April heat, and Dhoni, then a greenhorn playing his fifth ODI, walked into Indian consciousness with a stunning 123-ball 148 against Pakistan.
Now in the autumn of his career with his place in India’s cricket history secure, Dhoni would want to end the series on a high. As sporadic debates continue to splutter over his role, reliability and, by extension, future, India's inexperienced middle-order would hope for some chaperoning from the former captain. In the absence of Virat Kohli — who averages 99.75 here — a lot, once again, depends on Rohit Sharma, who has scored two fifties from his three outings here.
The stand-in skipper has been in imperious form of late, becoming the only batsman apart from Kohli to breach the 1000-run barrier in ODIs in 2017. His average of 75.64 is second only to Kohli’s 76.84, and his strike-rate of a neat 100 is the best among top ten run-getters of the year.
While Rohit has acknowledged his limited physical power vis-à-vis Dhoni, Chris Gayle or AB deVilliers, the fact remains that the Mumbai batsman comfortably tops the list of six-hitters this year. No batsman has hit more than Rohit’s 45 sixes in 2017, and a docile Sri Lanka attack does provide him an opportunity to further his lead.
Another important selection could be that of Ajinkya Rahane. The Test vice-captain has been bearing the brunt of team management’s constricted view of him as an opener, and if that myopic vision continues, the man who has reeled off four fifties from his last four outings may have to warm the bench again. India surely could do better to instill confidence in their most-valued overseas performer.
Shreyas Iyer, on the back of his 70-ball 88 in Mohali, remains a certainty, in which case, Rahane could be accommodated in place of Dinesh Karthik or Manish Pandey. None of them inspired any confidence on the seaming Dharamsala track, and neither got an opportunity to bat in the second ODI, but should it come to selecting one, the axe could fall on Kathik, simply because India view Pandey as a middle-order option in the long run.
Visakhapatnam is India’s last stop in a hugely-successful ODI calendar, where, barring Champions Trophy, they have won everything that has come their way. The hosts have played five bilateral series this year — the most among top three ODI teams — and have won each of them. Rohit Sharma would not like to break that sequence.