On August 18, 2008, Virat Kohli made his ODI debut at Dambulla International Cricket Stadium, opening the innings alongside Gautam Gambhir and scoring 12 off 22 balls. Exactly nine years down the line and 8,257 ODI runs later, he has returned here as India captain. It was another bilateral series that got faded in the sands of time. The upcoming five-match series that commences at this picturesque venue on Sunday will also be forgotten — unless you are a cricket nerd, or the series offers something long-lasting — as soon as the Aussies arrive in India next month.
To cut down meaningless bilateral series, the ICC drew up proposals of introducing an ODI league from 2019, with 13 nations playing. Under the proposal, each team will play a three-match series, home or away, against every other opponent over a three-year period. Then, a play-off series will determine the overall winner. The global body of the game feels that the revamp will give the ODIs a sense of purpose.
About the India-Sri Lanka series, there could be an argument that this is India’s first step towards the 2019 World Cup preparations. Only recently, chief selector MSK Prasad spoke about planning things with an eye on the next World Cup. At the pre-match press conference here on Saturday, Kohli, too, stressed on giving players “certain roles to get into the groove and understand” what the team needs.
All said and done, the next 50-over World Cup is still about 22 months away, long enough in Indian cricket’s context to formulate a concrete plan. Who would have foreseen Yuvraj Singh and Ashish Nehra’s return to the fold before the last year’s World T20! They were batting and fast-bowling quick fixes, plucked out from international recluse. Similarly, one never knows if situation and circumstances will demand Harbhajan Singh’s recall, for example, before the 2019 World Cup. The tournament is still a long way away. So this five-match series is perhaps more important from individuals’ perspectives; about settling into new roles, cementing the places and so on.
Take the case of KL Rahul, who has returned to the ODI squad after a seven-month lay-off because of a shoulder injury. Prasad had said he would bat at No. 4. Kohli said on Saturday that Rahul “will definitely be playing in the middle order”. So apparently, he is Yuvraj Singh’s replacement in the side, although not yet a proven performer at this level, with just six matches under his belt.
Manish Pandey is another one to return from an injury. A side strain suffered during the IPL saw the Karnataka batsman miss the Champions Trophy. This series offers the 27-year-old an opportunity to give a proper direction to his stop-start international career so far. After scoring a match-winning 104 not out against Australia in January 2016, Pandey had faded gradually. Injuries played a part. For Pandey, who is back to top-flight after an impressive performance with India ‘A’, the series becomes important in terms of cementing his place in the middle-order.
Then again, what lies in store for Kedar Jadhav, who can be a game-changer down the order — his 26-ball 40 against the West Indies at North Sound was the latest example. He also has a knack of providing breakthroughs with his part-time off-spin. Jadhav scores at a strike-rate of over 123 in ODIs. “All three guys (Rahul, Pandey and Jadhav) will have to compete for two spots in the middle-order. There are no guarantees I would say, as long as there is healthy competition, everyone will keep pushing each other, and that is only healthy for Indian cricket,” Kohli said.
Eyes on Dhoni
India’s return to full strength, batting-wise, creates little scope for MS Dhoni to move up the order and set up his innings before throwing the kitchen sink. He likes it that way of late, with his finishing skills seemingly on the wane. Though, the former skipper was practising lofted shots at the nets today, hitting back-to-back sixes off two net bowlers before Kuldeep Yadav cramped him for room with a chinaman.
It’s debatable whether Dhoni will carry the extra burden of Prasad’s comment: “if he is not (delivering), we will have to look at alternatives”. But certainly, the great man regaining his finishing mojo will be good for the team.
Rahul and Pandey’s return has once again put Ajinkya Rahane down in the pecking order. He has lost his vice-captaincy for not being a playing XI regular. Kohli explained his situation at length — that India can’t do away with the Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan opening combination at the moment, and at this stage the Mumbai batsman is “the third opener in the team”. This is despite the fact that Rahane scored 336 runs in five matches in West Indies, opening the innings, and bagged the Man of the Series award. Kohli admitted that for someone like Rahane it’s always carrying some pressure to the crease. “I’m sure there’s always pressure on every player that plays, but more so, on someone like Jinks when he goes out to bat in the shorter formats. I think any format if you have any kind of desperation or urge to cement your place or perform, so as to say, there is always going to be a bit of pressure on you,” the skipper said.
Being the third opener, however, gives Rahane some sort of assurance about being in the scheme of things. Given that India will play a lot of cricket outside the subcontinent in the next one year and a half, Rahane’s sound technique and his proven record overseas will keep him in contention.
For the bowlers also, this series is a lot about personal success, along with achieving collective goals. Especially in the spin-bowling department, India have two greenhorns in Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. Given R Ashwin’s inconsistency in the shorter formats, a couple of places (Ravindra Jadeja is an automatic pick in big tournaments) could be up for grabs going ahead. India will play two spinners in the first ODI and Yadav might edge Chahal, based on his performance in West Indies, to partner Axar Patel. But the team management’s desire to groom a wrist spinner is expected to give both Yadav and Chahal fair amount of opportunities in the near future. “… having wrist spinners in the team is always an advantage,” Kohli said.
Sri Lanka vs India (First ODI): Live on Sony Six – 2:30 pm onwards