Think India and Sri Lanka and you could be forgiven a yawn. Such has been the frequency of cricket between the two sub-continental rivals that it is hard to elicit any other reaction than exasperation. But here we are again. While looking for relevance in this overdone duel might be, prima facie, self-defeating, a nuanced look at the teams indicate there’s enough at stake to follow the developments at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo closely.
For starters, India would be keen to test their bench strength in the absence of familiar faces that not only inflicted a humiliating pounding on Sri Lanka the last time these two nations met, but were instrumental in handing South Africa twin limited-overs’ series losses.
Virat Kohli’s absence will, without doubt, give the Islanders and Bangladesh — the other team in the tri-series — some much-needed breathing space. It will also mean Rohit Sharma, a successful Twenty20 (T20) captain in the Indian Premier League (IPL), gets his second full series as the T20 skipper of the national side.
His first dig was also against Sri Lanka in December last year, and he led the hosts to a 3-0 whitewash. While he was woefully out of form against South Africa, Rohit certainly knows a thing or two about browbeating the Lankans. In his last T20 series against them, he scored a stunning 43-ball 118 in Indore, and in the preceding One-Day International (ODI) series against the same opposition, the Mumbai right-hander scored his third double ton.
In 13 T20Is against Sri Lanka, Rohit has scored a middling 278 runs, but his strike rate of 146.3 is the highest he has against any other team he has played, and is also more than his career strike rate of 135.73. His opening partner and vice-captain Shikhar Dhawan has been in rollicking form too, topping the run charts in South Africa.
India experimented with Suresh Raina at No 3 in the previous series and the veteran left-hander did follow his brief to perfection, scoring blazing cameos at a strike rate of 151.72. It would be interesting to see if Rohit persists with that strategy since there would not be the cushion of a Virat Kohli at No 4.
Kohli’s absence, however, means a likely spot for Manish Pandey in the playing XI. The unassuming Karnataka batsman has a propensity to slip under the radar, but it must be noted that he ended the T20 series in South Africa as India’s second highest run-getter, and third highest overall. The presence of KL Rahul means Rohit faces a selection headache, as Rahul clearly is too good a batsman to be benched for two consecutive series.
Dinesh Karthik, fresh from his appointment as the skipper of Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), would don the gloves and the experienced wicketkeeper-batsman can be counted on to produce some typically spunky innings.
India would also be looking closely at the fresh faces who have boarded the flight to Colombo. Deepak Hooda, the Rohtak-born all-rounder who plays domestic cricket for Baroda, would be hoping for some game time this series — Hooda was part of the T20 squad that played Sri Lanka last year but didn’t get a game. Known to clear the fence with ease, Hooda is also an excellent fielder and a handy off-spinner.
The absence of Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar means India would look at Jaydev Unadkat to stop Dinesh Chandimal’s team in death overs. Like Kumar, Unadkat showed remarkable control with the floating knuckle-ball in South Africa, and Sri Lankan conditions are likely to aid his style of bowling. Shardul Thakur, Vijay Shankar and Mohammed Siraj complete the pace quartet, and in all likelihood, Thakur will partner Unadkat in the series-opener.
The spin attack, in the absence of Kuldeep Yadav, looks depleted, with both Yuzvendra Chahal and Axar Patel getting a hammering in the T20 series in South Africa. While Chahal was exceptional in the ODIs, he did appear short of ideas when the batsmen went after him in the T20Is.
He conceded 103 runs in the two T20Is he bowled in South Africa, including a return of 4-0-64-0 in Centurion, the worse bowling figures by an Indian in the shortest format. Apart from finding ways to stop the batsmen from getting under his loopy leg-breaks, he will also have the task of leading the spin attack. Being the lone wrist-spinner in the squad does give him a headstart going into the first match, but it will really be up to him to prise out wickets in the middle overs, a task he does remarkably well in the ODIs.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, have dropped Niroshan Dickwella owing to poor form, but the pugnacious wicketkeeper-batsman has the tendency to get under the opposition’s skin, and his absence does limit hosts’ attacking options at the top.
Skipper Dinesh Chandimal and the gifted Kusal Mendis will bolster the middle-order, but it will be left to the experienced Upul Tharanga and Danushka Gunathalika to give Sri Lanka an early upper-hand, more so with no Angelo Mathews in the side. Suranga Lakmal, who brought India to their knees in the Kolkata Test last year, and the slippery Dushmantha Chameera are likely to lead their pace attack in the absence of Lasith Malinga.
India begin as overwhelming favourites, having walloped the hosts 9-0 across formats last season, but stranger things have happened on the cricket field. The shortest format does reduce the gap between teams to the minimum, and India’s relative inexperience presents Sri Lanka their best chance to upset the third-ranked T20 side in the world and kickstart their Independence Day celebrations in style. What better context could a host ask for?