The news of an impending India v Sri Lanka series brings with it a familiar reaction from cricket fans across the globe: “Oh no, not again!”
The reaction is partially justified, looking at the frequent clashes between the two sides over the last few years. The neighbouring countries have faced each other for bilateral series in different formats almost every single year since 2005, the only exception being 2011.
Many of those exchanges have lacked context, too, but the same cannot be said about the three-match Twenty20 International series starting in Pune on Tuesday (February 9). The series is important for both sides, as it’s a crucial part of their preparations for the ICC World Twenty20 that will be held in India in less than two months’ time. What better way to prepare for the big tournament than play against another strong side from the subcontinent?
The last time these two teams met in the format was in the final of the 2014 World T20 in Dhaka. Sri Lanka won the contest then to become the champions in the format for the first time, but a lot has changed over the last two years.
Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene retired from the format after the historic night in Dhaka, and then from international cricket altogether, pushing Sri Lanka into a tough transitional phase. Sri Lanka have played seven T20Is since then and have won only one.
The inexperienced batting lineup has been further depleted for this tour, with Angelo Mathews ruled out with a groin strain and Tillakaratne Dilshan not available for the first game because of a hand injury. The ban on Kusal Janith Perera for a doping breach has also added to Sri Lanka’s woes.
The result of all this is that Sri Lanka have a new-look lineup with the likes of Danushka Gunathilaka, Dasun Shanaka, Niroshan Dickwella and the uncapped Asela Gunaratne. It’s up to the relatively experienced Dinesh Chandimal, who will lead the side in Lasith Malinga’s absence, Thisara Perera and Chamara Kapugedara to guide the youngsters.
The bowling attack is also without some big names, the biggest being Malinga, who is still recovering from a knee injury that forced him to miss the tour to New Zealand. Nuwan Kulasekara was also ruled out with an injury, while Binura Fernando suffered an injury during practice on Sunday. Shaminda Eranga has been called up to replace Binura but he’s unlikely to be available for the first game.
The pace attack will, however, have some experience in the form of Dilhara Fernando, the 36 year old who last played for Sri Lanka in 2012 and received a surprise callup after decent performances in the domestic T20 competition to lead the attack that has Kasun Rajitha (uncapped) and Dushmantha Chameera.
Sachithra Senanayake, the offspinner, Milinda Siriwardana, the left-arm spinner, and the legspin duo of Seekkuge Prasanna and Jeffrey Vandersay form the slower options.
India, on the other hand, have announced their squad for the World T20 and look a settled unit. The team had only the lone practice session on the eve of the game but there is a sense of quiet confidence in their ranks.
They had a very average 2015 in the format, winning only one of their four matches, but have started 2016 in style with a 3-0 whitewash of Australia in Australia. Most of their players are in form but they would want to tick a few boxes as they start their home run leading to the big tournament.
The middle order, for example, did not get much batting time in Australia but, with Virat Kohli rested, someone like Yuvraj Singh is likely to get more batting time. It would also be interesting to see if Mahendra Singh Dhoni manages to fit Ajinkya Rahane into the playing XI.
Importantly, no player has to worry about his place and can instead play with freedom – something that could work in India’s favour. Only two players in the squad for the Sri Lanka series – Manish Pandey and Bhuvneshwar Kumar – have missed out on World T20 berths but they would know that they are next in line should an injury arise.
The series is also an opportunity for India to have a look at Pawan Negi. The allrounder has had a surreal week, receiving a national callup and then bagging a whopping Rs 8.5 crore Indian Premier League contract in the space of six days. Negi could have a direct competition with Hardik Pandya for a spot in the XI but with the Pune pitch having a bit of grass on it, he might have to wait for his turn.
Jasprit Bumrah, who Dhoni called the “find of the Australia tour”, has settled in nicely as has Ashish Nehra upon his return. The spin attack is in the safe hands of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, with Yuvraj and Suresh Raina doing part-time duty.
It is not often that a team starts as the standout favourite in the T20 format. India find themselves in that situation now as they look to identify their best XI. Sri Lanka, however, are still in search of their ideal 15.
India: MS Dhoni (capt, wk), Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane, Manish Pandey, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah, Ashish Nehra, Harbhajan Singh, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Pawan Negi.
Sri Lanka: Dinesh Chandimal (capt), Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Seekkuge Prasanna, Milinda Siriwardana, Dhanushka Gunathilaka, Thisara Perera, Dasun Shanaka, Asela Gunaratne, Chamara Kapugedara, Chameera Dushmantha, Dilhara Fernando, Kasun Rajitha, Shaminda Eranga, Sachithra Senanayake, Jeffrey Vandersay.