India vs Sri Lanka: Opportunity to learn, redeem and reinvigorate as exuberant visitors take on struggling hosts

While the senior and first-team players are busy preparing for the England Test series, it will be an opportunity for the players in Sri Lanka to learn, redeem and resurrect their careers.

Jigar Mehta July 18, 2021 08:05:38 IST
India vs Sri Lanka: Opportunity to learn, redeem and reinvigorate as exuberant visitors take on struggling hosts

File image of Yuzvendra Chahal (L), Kuldeep Yadav (C) and Shikhar Dhawan. Sportzpics

It's that time of the year... The ever-present fixture on the cricket FTP is back again. India vs Sri Lanka. There has barely been a year since 1992 when they have missed playing each other. Three ODIs and as many T20Is will fill this year's quota with India touring the island nation. Unlike most of the past fixtures, this time it's more chaotic though (mostly for the home side).

The pandemic has changed the way sport is played and cricket has been no different. India are fielding two teams at the same time. One in England for the Test series and the other in Sri Lanka. It hasn't impressed many Sri Lankan fans, including a former captain. The home side themselves are in a disarray, on the field with their poor results and off the field with discipline issues and a contract stand-off. Three of their players were sent back home from the England tour for breaking the COVID-19 curfew and then the players, not happy with the new scheme, refused to sign contracts, finally signing a tour contract just a week before the start of the India series.

Their veteran and long-standing servant (Angelo Mathews) opted out of the tour and declined the tour contract and is contemplating retirement. They have a second new white-ball captain in the space of two months with Dasun Shanaka replacing Kusal Perera — who was appointed to lead the side in May — as the new leader. Their batting coach — Grant Flower - tested positive for COVID-19 along with data analyst G T Niroshan after returning from the England tour, forcing the series to be rescheduled. Then their first-choice opener and a vital cog, Perera, was ruled out of the series due to a shoulder injury. The squad was finally announced just two days before the start of the ODI series after the Sports Minister's approval.

It's been chaotic and given Sri Lanka's struggles, Arjuna Ranatunga's lament that 'a second-string Indian team coming to the island nation is an insult to our cricket' doesn't quite make sense. In fact, this Indian side could prove to be a tough nut to crack. The fact that the Indian team management, selectors and the captain will be spoilt for choices while selecting the team speaks volumes of the talent reservoir that Indian cricket possesses. It's a testament to the country's cricketing structure which has systematically churned out quality players over the years, and the Indian Premier League as well, which has forged nerves of steel.

This is a youthful and exuberant side that veteran Shikhar Dhawan will be leading in Sri Lanka and coached by Rahul Dravid. And while the senior players are busy preparing for the England Test series, it will be an opportunity for the players in Sri Lanka to learn, redeem and resurrect their careers.

In the year of the T20 World Cup, the ODIs lack relevance for India in the grand scheme of things. India have automatically qualified for the 2023 World Cup by the virtue of being hosts so they don't have to worry about climbing the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup Super League. However, the series will be crucial for individuals. It will be a chance for those auditioning for the T20 World Cup to get into the groove for the T20I series, for some to bounce back after a tough time in the international arena, and some to resurrect their careers.

Five players have received their maiden call-ups to the Indian squad — Devdutt Padikkal, Nitish Rana, Ruturaj Gaikwad, K Gowtham and Chetan Sakariya — mostly on the back of strong IPL performances while Prithvi Shaw and Manish Pandey have been recalled to the white-ball squad.

Not everyone might get an opportunity on the tour. Rahul Dravid had stressed on the fact that winning the series will be the priority rather than providing match time or experience.

Whether they get a game or not, it still will be crucial for the newcomers and youngsters to learn from Dravid and seniors like Dhawan and Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the dressing room, and to gain the experience of an away tour against an international side. It's also a chance to don that coveted Indian jersey if indeed they get a shot. Impress if the opportunity arises and catch the eye of selectors.

The ODI series is an opportunity to redeem and resurrect as well. Shaw was hurt after being dropped mid-way in the Australia Test series last year but he bounced back with vengeance scoring heavily in the Vijay Hazare Trophy shattering records in the process. Though he wasn't a regular in the limited-overs scheme of things, it will be his chance to get back into contention for national setup and don that India jersey again.

Pandey and Kuldeep will look to resurrect their careers. Pandey has endured a start-stop journey so far and wasn't included in the limited-overs series at home against England earlier this year. He was also dropped from the central contracts list for 2020-21. After many 'may be it's his last' chances, he stands at crossroads in his career. Yes, he might have been unlucky with the selection musical chairs but he will need to make the most of the chances presented to him. He started the tour off well with a 64 in the intrasquad match and might get that middle-order spot where he will bring in much-needed experience. A strong showing in the series might keep him in the reckoning. An excellent series might push his case for selection for T20Is.

Kuldeep too has endured a difficult last few years. He's lost his place in the T20I and Test sides and hasn't had much of an impact in the IPL as well. He will be looking to stay afloat with impactful performances in the ODIs.

Just like Kuldeep, the other half of 'KulCha' has been struggling of late and has been in and out of the white-ball sides in the last couple of years. Yuzvendra Chahal was also demoted to grade C from B in the 2020-21 central contracts list. In ODIs, until the 2019 WC, Chahal averaged 24.61 SR 30.1 and econ 4.89 but since then it's all gone downhill and he's averaged 36.95, striking every 36 balls and conceding at 6.15 per over.

Before the 2019 WC, Chahal averaged 21.13 in T20Is with an economy rate of 8 and SR of 15.8. After WC, the average has shot up to 37.68, the economy rate to 9.13 and the strike rate to 24.7. There is a good enough gulf between the Chahal from two years ago, and Chahal today.

With Rahul Chahar rising through the ranks with impressive performances in the IPL for Mumbai Indians and staking a claim in the Indian side, Chahal would like to redeem himself and stay in contention for the T20 World Cup.

This might be the last chance for Sanju Samson to make a case for himself for the T20 World Cup. For years now he's been touted as a special talent but fallen short on delivering on the promise. He's not made the most of the chances he's got. Inconsistency has been his biggest enemy. In the seven T20Is he's played, his highest score is 23 and he averages 11.85. He will be competing with Ishan Kishan, who impressed on debut against England in T20Is, for the wicket-keeper's slot. A string of consistent scores may help his cause for selection in T20Is.

It will also be an opportunity for vice-captain Bhuvneshwar Kumar to prove his fitness. He has been caught in the web of injuries for quite some time now. But he showed against England in the white-ball home series' that he's still got that guile and swing. And could compete for a spot in this formidable Indian fast bowling cartel if he remains injury-free.

Dravid and Co will have their task cut out selecting the team. There are multiple options for different spots. There is a cluster of top-order batsmen in the squad — Shikhar Dhawan, Prithvi Shaw, Devdutt Padikkal, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Nitish Rana, Ishan Kishan, Suryakumar Yadav. There are six spinners in the squad — Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Rahul Chahar, K Gowtham, Varun Chakravarthy and Krunal Pandya.

Hardik Pandya has been bowling in the nets as well. So it might give them a chance to go in with two pacers, two spinners and another all-rounder in Krunal Pandya. The 'KulCha' pairing might get the nod in the spin department while Bhuvneshwar and Deepak Chahar may be the pacers. The left-right combination might tilt the balance in favour of Shaw for the opener's slot along with Shikhar Dhawan. Suryakumar and Panday may slot in at either 3 or 4 followed by Samson/Kishan, Hardik and Krunal.

Sri Lanka, on the other hand, will be looking to steady their stuttering ship. Under the new captain, Shanaka, they will be looking to hit the refresh button. They had a disappointing tour of England where they were comprehensively outclassed at first in T20Is and then in ODIs. They were bowled out under 200 in two out of three ODIs and in the one match they crossed 200, they ended up with a well below par score of 241 on a good batting track.

The top-order will need to take the responsibility of setting the platform. They were like deer frozen in the headlights against the moving ball early on and garnered scores of 47/3, 47/4 and 45/5 in the first 10 overs of the three ODIs against England respectively. They struggled against the short ball as well. And it won't be easy against the likes of Bhuvneshwar, Chahar or Saini who can swing them early on.

To add to their woes, they have lost Perera — their third-highest run-getter in the last year — to injury. It's problems galore in the batting department. Three of their first team batters — Danushka Gunathilaka, Niroshan Dickwella and Kusal Mendis have been suspended for breaking the curfew in England. Hasaranga de Silva, who has been their highest run-getter in ODIs in the last 12 months, will form the pillar in the middle order along with Dhananjaya de Silva. There will be a lot of expectations from the talented Avishka Fernando at the top.

Pacers Dushmantha Chameera and Binura Fernando impressed in the ODI series against England but with the latter also out due to injury, Kasun Rajitha, who is returning from injury, or Isuru Udana will have to create an impact in the pace department along with Chameera.

The hosts will need to step up in the spin department, the spinners managed just one wicket in the ODI series against England, averaging 89, while in the T20Is, they picked up just two wickets from three matches at an average of 77.50. Hasaranga and De Silva will have the added responsibility with the ball in the middle overs and also there will be high hopes from Akila Dananjaya and Lakshan Sandakan if one of the two is included in the side.

Cricket will return to the R Premadasa stadium in Colombo after two years. The last time it hosted a match was in July 2019 when Sri Lanka hosted Bangladesh in an ODI. It's generally a slow track but a decent scoring venue. In the last three years (Since 1 Jan 2017), the average first innings score has been 303. And the team batting first has won 71.4 percent of the matches (5 out of 7).

Sri Lanka were lucky to escape with five points in the World Cup Super League after the final ODI washout against England. It might have provided some relief but there's still a lot of work to be done. They are currently 12th (Second from bottom) in the table with 13 points and need to desperately garner crucial points along with consistency to stay in contention.

India do start off as favourites against the struggling Lankans. Unlike the many famous India-Sri Lanka clashes of the past, this might be bereft of heavy-weights. However, with one side brimming with talent and the other looking to bounce back hard to stay afloat and with so much flair and flamboyance on display, the series might turn out to be an enthralling one.

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