“We still remember, for us as a squad, after the tour of Australia in 2014-15, we found ourselves at No. 7 in the world and from then on the transformation started.”
Virat Kohli had commented as he revived memories of India’s Sri Lankan tour in 2015 from where the “belief” to be no.1 started. Although India lost the opening Test in that series, they secured the final two games to win the series 2-1. Most of the players from that tour are back in Sri Lanka this time around for three Tests plus a limited-overs leg.
While most of India’s success since the 2015 tour came in familiar conditions at home, the forthcoming season promises action abroad and the Lankan tour could well be India’s testing ground before the bigger challenges abroad.
Sri Lanka are undergoing some severe changes in personnel and although they chased down the biggest score in the fourth innings of a Test in Asia against Zimbabwe last week, that they almost lost to the minnows became the bigger talking point.
From India’s point of view, the tour to Lankan shores have come at an apt time. They would like to dip their feet in deep waters before taking a plunge in South Africa for a possible series later this year. The Test team is assuming shape under the new coach, Ravi Shastri, and against a struggling side like Sri Lanka, India would have more leeway to experiment.
Aside from the openers and one middle-order slot, the other positions are set in stone at the moment in the Test squad. Murali Vijay was ruled out of the series after being named in the squad initially and Shikhar Dhawan, post his fine One Day form, has earned a recall. KL Rahul, who is returning from injury, has a hundred in Lanka in the last tour and should be the first choice opener. One of Abhinav Mukund or Dhawan would open with him. Given, the future assignments, this could well be a contest for the backup opener’s slot.
Pujara at 3, Kohli at 4 and Rahane at 5 are pretty much settled and need little meddling. The no.6 slot is a toss up between Rohit Sharma or Hardik Pandya as an all-rounder. Rohit’s recall is a surprise at the expense of Karun Nair.
If India intend to fine tune their Test squad for South Africa later this year, Rohit Sharma should be left out in favour of Pandya. It does leave India with a suscept lower middle-order but Saha, Pandya and Ashwin are able options.
The all-rounder/spinner conundrum
Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin pick themselves in these conditions. With Kuldeep Yadav also available, India might play all three with Pandya and Umesh as the lone seam bowling options. However, the Lankan series could well be testing grounds to pick the no.1 spinner. Ashwin had come a cropper in overseas conditions previously but his recent returns in Tests in India make him the no.1 choice.
However, India need to be prepared for the worst and if Ashwin’s bowling in England in the Champions Trophy is anything to go by, little has changed. This augers well for someone like Kuldeep looking to break into the Test squad. Jadeja’s impeccable lines and persistent channel of attack also makes him a viable option. While all three could play in the Tests against Sri Lanka, a duel for the no.1 spinner is definitely on.
The fast bowlers
Umesh Yadav, with his recent performances, should be the no.1 seamer in Tests. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Mohammad Shami are also available in the squad as is seaming all-rounder, Hardik Pandya. If India opt to play all three spinners, only two of the above mentioned five could make it. Umesh and Pandya or Umesh and Bhuvneshwar Kumar are favourites of that is the case.
That said, Kohli’s preference for pace could favour Shami or Ishant in place of Bhuvneshwar. The bottom line is India need to concentrate on keeping their pace bowlers on the feet before tougher challenges come. Bhuvneshwar had bowled brilliantly in England and is one of the better pace bowlers in the squad. With an eye on South Africa later this year, Bhuvneshwar should ideally get the nod.
The captaincy and coach
Virat Kohli will finally be relieved that Ravi Shastri is at the helm as coach. The duo had formed a potent partnership as captain and coach before Kumble’s tenure. The Sri Lanka tour would also be the start of Kohli’s tougher assignments as captain. He has thus far endured smooth rides with the backing of the crowds, dry pitches and capable spinners. But overseas conditions makes all of this redundant and the real test begins then.
Kohli’s strong words to the team before departure is evidence that the captain is aware of the task in front of the team. “What matters is how much you believe more than the opposition”, Kohli had said.
The Sri Lankan series could be seen as another one of India’s boring sub-continental assignments. But in the bigger context, it is a preparation for tougher assignments and Kohli and co. would do well to experiment with their best options in the Test squad.