Sri Lanka set off into the unknown in 2015 when Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene packed away their One-Day International jerseys. Two years on, the team is still at sea.
Fortunately, every transition has a destination, and Sri Lanka will be praying for the ride to end now. Unfortunately, they’re up against India, and they could be in for another rough-weather session, starting with the first of five One-Day Internationals at the Rangiri Dambulla International stadium on Sunday (August 20).
It does sound improbable at this stage that Upul Tharanga’s injury-hit, morale-blistered unit will take the lead at Dambulla against the giant that is India, but they shall hope against hope, and so will the rest of the nation.
On the face of it at least, Sri Lankan fans have given up on their side. They haven’t come to this conclusion because of the recent 3-0 humiliation in the Test series against India or the one-day series which they lost to Zimbabwe before India landed up on their shores.
Of course, results matter and bad ones contribute in pushing even the best of fans to the brink, but in this case, it’s the lack of fire, a quality so inherently Sri Lankan one would think, that’s made even the loyalists have a tepid reaction.
Sri Lanka’s desire to fight and put on a show in doing so is what made them world champions over two decades ago. Since then, they maintained the template to humble some of the finest teams in world cricket. Now, they’re just a pale shadow of a glorious past.
It hasn’t been easy for them to come to terms with Sangakkara and Jayawardene leaving in tandem, and they probably never will be able to fill that void. It didn’t help either that Tillakaratne Dilshan walked into the sunset in 2016. But to concede isn’t Sri Lankan, and yet that’s the attitude they’ve repeatedly turned up with since. That just won’t do against India, not this team at least.
Virat Kohli’s men are on a mission to win absolutely everything and dominate like no other team before or after. Having the right pieces in the right places has helped them on a journey as ambitious as this.
That said, there are a couple of positions that could see some movement during this series, but these are just the minor pieces. Crucial enough to ponder over in preparation for the World Cup 2019, but not particularly pressing at this juncture.
One is the toss up for the middle-order slot between Manish Pandey and Kedar Jadhav, and the other is a which-horse-for-this-course issue in the spin department.
Addressing the first issue, Pandey is coming off a great India A tour and is trying to establish a permanent spot in the side. While he’s electric with the bat and as vivacious on the field, he’s competing against someone who has turned into a game-changer for India. Jadhav wasn’t among runs in the West Indies but his swashbuckling style of play warrants a spot, and not to forget he’s been more than handy with a ball in hand too. Also, Jadhav isn’t particularly picky with his batting position and that offers far more flexibility, not something Pandey has extended so far.
In the battle for the two spin slots, Yuzvendra Chahal should find himself on the field, wielding his leg-breaks. Between Kuldeep Yadav and Axar Patel there’s little to choose from. The former is a young and promising chinaman with a deadly googly. The latter is a left-arm spinner with flight-varying guile as a strength.
As far as the pace unit is concerned, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah will lead the way with Hardik Pandya doubling up as the third paceman. Shardul Thakur has been warming the Indian bench for a while without making his international debut and it’s likely that the trend will continue.
Clearly, the members of the Indian side are on a short rope because of the depth on the bench and beyond, but there is one player under more pressure than the rest. MS Dhoni, the former skipper and a crucial cog in India’s transition in one-day cricket since his debut in 2004, was given a notice by MSK Prasad, the chief selector, after being drafted into the side for this series.
Prasad said “Dhoni cannot take his position in the team for granted, and if he doesn’t perform we’ll look at alternates”. Expected or not, that would have come as a hard hit for Dhoni. At 36, he’s still one of the fittest members in the side, but his body isn’t so much the issue at this point. His powers as a hard-hitting finisher seem to be on the wane, and with the selectors focussed on prepping the right side for the 2019 World Cup, his head is on the chopping block, not that you can tell with Dhoni.
Rest assured, he will have his eyes trained on solid performances here to appease the selectors and his legion of fans. However, if he does go through another lean patch, this could even turn into the end-game for Dhoni.
Speaking of the end, Thisara Perera seems to have outlived his expiry date for Sri Lanka although only 28. But he’s likely to feature in the eleven throughout the series for his all-round ability and experience, barring an injury.
That, and the fact that Angelo Mathews is expected to bowl this series gives Tharanga the breathing space to play two frontline pacemen – Lasith Malinga and Vishwa Fernando (the debutant) – and rely on the two young spinners in Akila Dananjaya and Lakshan Sandakan.
Is this the best side Sri Lanka have put up against India? Not by a distance, but this is the best they can do right now. Sadly, that probably won’t even be enough to even ruffle a few feathers on the big bird.
Sri Lanka (likely): Upul Tharanga (capt), Angelo Mathews, Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Danushka Gunathilaka, Kusal Mendis, Chamara Kapugedera, Wanidu Hasaranga, Lakshan Sandakan, Thisara Perera, Lasith Malinga, Vishwa Fernando.
India (likely): Virat Kohli (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma (vice-capt), KL Rahul, Kedar Jadhav, MS Dhoni (wk), Hardik Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar.