India return to white-ball cricket after four months with three One-Day Internationals followed by as many T20Is against Sri Lanka, starting in Colombo on Sunday. With another Indian team preparing for a Test series in England, this tour may seem insignificant to some. But it does offer some unique prospects.
Led by Shikhar Dhawan, it’s an inexperienced, if not second string, squad that India has sent to Sri Lanka. Having two teams on separate assignments puts Indian cricket in an unprecedented position, and it remains to be seen whether or not this will become common practice in the future. For now, though, there is no doubt that it is the England Tests that will peak interest, while the results on the Sri Lanka tour would struggle to find relevance.
It also doesn’t help that the home team inspires little confidence. Sri Lanka recently got swept by England in ODIs and T20Is, three of their players – Niroshan Dickwella, Kusal Mendis and Danushka Gunathilaka – have been suspended for flouting Covid-19 protocols, a bitter pay dispute with the board ended only last week, and Angelo Mathews, their most experienced player, has opted out of the India series citing personal reasons.
As far as the Indian team is concerned, there are some key talking points heading into the Sri Lanka series. Firstly, this tour is the last international white-ball assignment for India before the T20 World Cup and thus, it will serve as a platform to shine for players looking to make their mark. As much as India will want to succeed collectively, players will also want to focus on outshining each other. The selectors will eye candidates for specific roles for the World Cup and the battles within the Indian squad in Sri Lanka will be critical.
Secondly, the six matches are likely to provide crucial opportunities to a number of young players and allow the selectors to gauge the bench strength. The likes of Devdutt Padikkal, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Varun Chakravarthy, who have impressed in the IPL, will be keen to make a mark in their debut international series too if given the chance.
India’s squad for SL tour (ODIs and T20Is): Shikhar Dhawan (captain), Bhuvneshwar Kumar (vice-captain), Prithvi Shaw, Devdutt Padikkal, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Suryakumar Yadav, Manish Pandey, Hardik Pandya, Nitish Rana, Ishan Kishan (wicketkeeper), Sanju Samson (wicketkeeper), Yuzvendra Chahal, Rahul Chahar, K Gowtham, Krunal Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Varun Chakravarthy, Deepak Chahar, Navdeep Saini, Chetan Sakariya.
Then there is the appointment of Rahul Dravid as head coach. The former India captain, now overseeing things at the National Cricket Academy, has done a remarkable job with the India A and Under-19 teams in recent years. His presence will only help this important group of white-ball cricketers for India.
Skipper Dhawan, Padikkal, Sanju Samson, Prithvi Shaw, Nitish Rana, Krishnappa Gowtham, Nitish Rana and Chetan Sakariya have all spoken about how they’re looking forward to learn from Dravid.
“To have him as our coach, you couldn’t ask for anything more and to have a mentor like him beside you, it’s just a great feeling, and hopefully, I can pick up a lot of things from him,” said Padikkal.
Shaw added: “The way he speaks, the way he shares his coaching experience, is just amazing. Whenever he talks about the game, it shows how much experience he brings to the table. He knows everything about cricket. The way he speaks on conditions and how to use them is just out of this world.”
Despite Dravid’s presence and the excitement of seeing fresh talent on the biggest stage, perhaps the biggest factor for India will be the intra-squad battles as we head towards the T20 World Cup later this year.
With regular skipper Virat Kohli expressing his interest to open the batting – at the end of the T20I series against England in March – the matches in Sri Lanka will hold great significance for Dhawan and Shaw.
Both openers were in fine form in the first half of IPL 2021. Dhawan was close to his best as he guided Delhi Capitals to the top of the table, while Shaw carried forward his form from the domestic season to show his white-ball prowess.
Although their inclusion in the World Cup squad seems like a long shot at this point, Padikkal and Gaikwad, too, will be keen to impress the selectors if and when they get opportunities.
Even the middle order has intense competition. Suryakumar Yadav will look to build on his strong debut against England earlier this year, while Samson will be desperate for runs to earn his spot back in the main team. Ishan Kishan, Nitish Rana and Manish Pandey are also in the squad and the six games will provide a good opportunity for these players to nudge ahead in the race for the middle order spots.
Hardik Pandya, meanwhile, seems to be a certainty based on his big-hitting skills alone. But the all-rounder would want to test his bowling this time around. The 27-year-old didn’t bowl for Mumbai Indians in the first half of IPL 2021 and the Indian team management would want him to bowl as many overs as possible in the lead-up to the World Cup.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar finds himself in a similar situation. When fully fit, he’s one of the best pace bowlers for India in white-ball cricket, but the 31-year-old has struggled with one injury after another over the past few years and it is imperative for him to get more overs under his belt.
With the T20 World Cup just a few months away, the spin bowling department is perhaps the biggest cause of concern for India. For the Sri Lanka series, they have Yuzvendra Chahal, Rahul Chahar, Gowtham, Krunal Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav in the squad. Again, these five spinners have a good opportunity to set themselves apart as the selectors try and figure out the right combination.
While India will no doubt push for a win in each game, this tour could prove to be an audition for every player. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise if they focus on individual performances. Perhaps, it is the need of the hour. It could well be the biggest challenge for Dravid — a quintessential team man — in balancing his team’s tactics in terms of the personal vs collective. The second half of IPL 2021 will undoubtedly hold value too in terms of the T20 World Cup selection, but the players in Sri Lanka must grab their chances.
India have an immense pool of talent to choose from. But heading towards the T20 World Cup, they also face a few questions in terms of their first-choice XI. For the players in Sri Lanka, against a weakened opposition, there is an opportunity to steal the spotlight. A century or five-for may not be enough, they need to break the door down. It is, perhaps, each player for himself.