WE ARE in an era where it’s difficult to say for sure that you’ve seen a cricketer on the field for one final time. Such is the frequency, with which age-no-bar T20 leagues spring up these days that you’re likely to come across familiar bowling actions and batting stances. More often than not, however, the shapes and sizes of those showcasing them won’t quite be the same as the last time you spotted them.
To his credit, Dilhara Fernando has at least kept himself in enviable shape. In his prime, the 36-year-old wasn’t always the fittest of Sri Lankan fast bowlers going around, but he certainly did have the most muscular physiques. And four years after he made his previous appearance on the international stage, he still seemed to have it. But this wasn’t the warm-up session in some obscure ‘league’ but the eve of an international match with Fernando back in Sri Lankan gear.
The sight of him running down with his tattooed arms pumping up and down under the burning Pune sun at the Maharashtra Cricket Association (MCA) Stadium though wasn’t as much about his return as it was a testament to the depleted stocks in the Sri Lankan camp. A team that has been in a state of transition and on this occasion will also be without their big-names, including skipper Angelo Mathews, Lasith Malinga and Tillakaratane Dilshan to name a few.
It also means that the Indian team, who are riding high after their 3-0 thrashing of Australia and look to be one of the few teams with an extremely settled squad for the World T20, will not be tested the way they would want to be a month prior to the big event. Even when you consider the much-publicized eccentricities of T20 cricket, the gulf in the quality of the two teams is too obvious a sign to be ignored.
If anything, the contest will be more internal than anything. For once, India seem to have no gaps that they need to fill, and the three-match series will be more an opportunity for some of the players who didn’t get a fair outing Down Under, because of the indomitable form of the top-order, to step up to the plate and show off how they strengthen an already formidable-looking Indian team.
Pandya the all-round option
Not many would have picked out Ashish Nehra, a forgotten veteran in many eyes, and Jasprit Bumrah, a relatively unsung quick who’s turned more heads with his unique bowling action, to be spearheading the bowling attack for India in a World T20.
And this would have been the case even a month earlier. But so impressive were they with the ball, both new and old in Australia that the selectors haven’t even bothered about picking a third option in that department. That R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja were a handful in the shortest format even in conditions that weren’t really in their favour is only a warning sign for any team that has to contend with them over the next two months of T20 cricket. It leaves MS Dhoni to ponder over the fifth bowling action. While Hardik Pandya did show the tendency to bowl all around the dial and go for plenty, he also showed the knack of picking important wickets. With Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina expected to chip in with the ball, especially in the subcontinent, it’s likely that Dhoni wouldn’t have to go to Pandya for more than a couple of overs.
“If it’s on the slower side, we have the option of getting in Negi in the place of Hardik if it’s needed. If not, Hardik gives us that seaming allrounder option. He gives the two overs that’s needed,” as Dhoni put it on Monday. But the three matches could also be looked at as a chance to see Pandya the batsman in action. He’s made a name for himself in the IPL and domestic cricket with his ability to hit sixes, and mighty ones at that, without much fuss. He even produced a little prelude of what he is capable of during the practice session at the MCA Stadium. But with Virat Kohli absent, there is a chance that Pandya gets a promotion.
Rahane, a short-gap
Ideally you would expect the absence of Kohli to immediately bring Ajinkya Rahane into contention for the No.3 spot. It’s unfortunate that the Mumbai right-hander isn’t considered a shoo-in for the T20 playing XI. He’s arguably been among the most consistent batsmen in the IPL.
But he’s done so from the opening position for the erstwhile Rajasthan Royals. And with Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma having made No.1 and No.2 their own, Rahane has been left to look for an opening in the middle-order. That quest has been made all the more difficult with Yuvraj’s return.
Having said that, it will be Rahane who is likely to come in place of Kohli-with Manish Pandey having to sit out considering his non-selection in the World T20 squad-on Tuesday.
But the fact that Yuvraj also gives Dhoni the left-arm slow option, means Rahane will remain a non-starter come the World T20, regardless of what he achieves with the bat over the next week.
No experiments with Raina
SPEAKING OF No.3, India’s only century in a World T20 match came from that position, and the batsman who got past the three-figure mark that day in St Lucia was Raina. And there is a case for the left-hander, who finished off the third T20 match in style at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), should he be slotted up the order. It is also a position that Raina has excelled in for years in the yellow of Chennai Super Kings (CSK) in the IPL. But it wasn’t an option that Dhoni seemed prepared to experiment with.
“I think it will be slightly better if Raina bats at the position that he will most likely bat in the World Cup. It will give him that exposure. Also we are not a team that plays a lot of T20Is. Usually we play one game in a bilateral series. So this gives an opportunity to expose him at No 4 for a consistent period of time,” said the Indian captain.
Freeing up Dhoni
IN AUSTRALIA, it was Dhoni who followed Raina in the batting-order. He didn’t always look like he was back at his best. But there was a sense of freedom in his approach that hasn’t always been on display in recent months. The most cited reason for his much-publicized change in intent has been his lack of trust in those following him. But with Yuvraj, Jadeja and Pandya now in the mix, it seems to have given Dhoni the license to free his arms, even though he hardly got to spend too much time at the crease during the three T20s in Australia. “If Hardik Pandya comes in to bat at No 8 then there is just a little liberty for the batsmen to bat freely. Even if a wicket falls, there is not much pressure on them. But we are fortunate that we have batting at No. 8, usually it is said that there is not much opportunity for a No. 8 batsman in T20s but it does happen in 15-20 games. And if that happens in a knockout game, he can always help,” explained Dhoni.
Sand-based outfield a concern?
DON’T BE surprised if the ball drops and splutters away like a shot put on the ground at MCA stadium in Pune in the first T20 game between India and Sri Lanka. The outfield is sand-based and it’s a velocity killer as was seen in the training sessions of both the teams on Monday. Nearly every time a batsman hit the ball hard and high, it not only didn’t bounce nor skim through the surface but it almost died and alarmingly came to a stand-still. It’s a sand-based outfield but it felt more like a sand pit.
“It’s a sand-based outfield and it’s a normal outfield, well-timed shots will travel,” said the curator Pandurang Salgoankar. But the evidence didn’t hold up his theory. It wasn’t all that visible when the Sri Lankans trained as only Dinesh Chandimal hit the ball with any power and to his credit, he kept clearing the boundary. It became more apparent when the Indians practiced. Ravindra Jadeja huffed and puffed but the ball just died after landing. Even the drilled ground hits rarely skimmed across towards the boundary, instead on many occasions it didn’t even reach the boundary. Dew is another unknown factor as according to the curator, not many games have been played at this time of the year here. “We have to wait and see. I can’t say what effect it would have.”