“Virat shirt, Virat shirt,’ the merchandise seller wooed the passer-bys before he was promptly reminded there was no Virat Kohli for Sunday’s match. The absence of captain Virat Kohli and the return of all-rounder Hardik Pandya marks the India-Sri Lanka One-Day series which gets underway at the HPCA Stadium here on Sunday.
This hilly town, though, is not experiencing any buzz on the eve of the match. Even the mountain peaks in the distance are not snow-clad yet and the cold is not biting; signs of changing times even as the teams prepare for the contest in excellent weather – the sun is pleasant and the ground in great shape.
Kohli was missing from the last international fixture played at this venue – Test against Australia last March. His absence had obviously left the local fans dejected even though the host had won the contest under the captaincy of Ajinkya Rahane.
Rahane under the pump
Since that match, Rahane has seen his cricketing fortunes plummet to their lowest with critics even questioning his place in the side for the forthcoming tour to South Africa. More than anyone, Rahane would feel weighed down by the mounting pressure to perform. Expectedly, he would face intense scrutiny once he takes the guard in a format which he loves more because of his ability to play a wide range of shots.
The ODI specialist
With Rohit Sharma set to lead the team, veteran M. S. Dhoni assumes a vital role. Dhoni’s inputs have always been valued by Kohli and it would be Rohit’s turn to benefit now. This match assumes significance for the Mumbai batsman who has long struggled to cement a place in the Test squad. The limited-overs format, however, is his favourite stage and the Sri Lanka series - his debut as captain.
Rohit has evolved as a batsman. That said, some former greats rate him an underachiever because he often tends to gift his wicket away. “He would do well to put a value on his wicket. He has awesome talent to destroy the attack,” was how VVS Laxman had analysed Rohit’s batting.
What sets Rohit apart is the fact that he has a shot for every ball, albeit his game has a few limitations. The 30-year-old's knack to pace the innings makes him a dangerous batsman in the middle and end overs - his ability to pick the line early and decide on the stroke he intends to unleash proving to be every opponent's Achilles Heel.
His languid style to pick the shots of his liking makes him one of the most attractive batsmen at the crease. For the team, he can be the best man in the middle when the demand is to push the scoring rate.
Meanwhile, young Shreyas Iyer and Manish Pandey, especially the latter with his brilliant footwork and an attacking instinct, would be worth following along with Dinesh Karthik, who is in the radar of the National selectors for the 2019 World Cup.
India’s bowling strength is easily the most incisive with seamers Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar being just as reliable as spinners Kuldeep Yadav, Axar Patel and Yuzvendra Chahal.
Fresh faces for Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, will be without its Test captain Dinesh Chandimal in the one-day scheme. Also missing is Kusal Mendis, who was not picked for the Test series against India. But there is much to look out for in this Sri Lankan team.
For the visitor, all-rounder Asela Gunaratne finds a place along with fast bowler Nuwan Pradeep - both usher quality in their respective areas.
Indian fans would also love to see Dhananjaya de Silva after his fabulous century in the third Test at Delhi. For India’s young bowlers, Dhananjaya and Angelo Mathews would be the batsmen to contend for.
Sri Lanka has an exciting batting line up, spearheaded by Sadeera Samarawickrama, captain Thisara Perera, talented wicketkeeper-batsman Niroshan Dickwella, Upul Tharanga and Lahiru Thirimanne.
It is clear that Sri Lanka would look forward to solid work from its batsmen to give its bowlers the cushion to try and tame the India's batting wealth.
Sri Lanka has an impressive bunch of seamers in Suranga Lakmal and Dushmantha Chameera. The lone spinner, Akila Dananjaya, can expect support from left-arm all-rounders Chaturanga de Silva and Sachith Pathirana.