Johannesburg: On a high after the demolition of South Africa in the ODIs, an upbeat India will be aiming to tighten the noose around the beleaguered hosts when they square off in a three-match T20 series, starting on Sunday.
Having created history by thrashing South Africa 5-1 in the ODI series, Virat Kohli and his men will be looking to carry the same momentum and intensity going into the shortest format, with veteran Suresh Raina in the spotlight as he makes a comeback into the national team after one year.
The defeat in the Test series now seems to be a story of a distant past and India will begin as overwhelming favourites with spin twins Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal ready to torment the opposition all over again. India have fond memories of playing T20 cricket on South African shores as they won their first ever match in the shortest format in the Rainbow Nation back in 2006 followed by the historic World T20 triumph under Mahendra Singh Dhoni a year later.
Since the 2017 Champions Trophy, India have played 10 T20Is, winning seven of those matches. As such, they have a stable formula to rely on in the shortest format as well. Raina, KL Rahul and Jaydev Unadkat are the new additions to the Indian contingent here for this T20 series. The trio had a two-hour net session at Centurion yesterday before the start of the sixth ODI. There is also an optional practice session scheduled on Saturday at the Wanderers.
In their last T20 engagement at home against Sri Lanka, Kohli and Bhuvneshwar Kumar were two key players who were rested. In their absence, the likes of Shreyas Iyer, Mohammed Siraj and Washington Sundar were able to get an outing on the international stage. Among the trio, only Iyer has made it to the current squad and it remains to be seen if he is included in the playing XI on Sunday. The young batsman has had starts in the two ODIs he played at Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, scoring 18 and 30. His composure was more impressive than his run-tally though, never mind the dropped catches. Yet, he might lose out to the returning Raina, who is a particularly handy all-rounder in this format.
Raina’s return is the most intriguing aspect of the T20 series from an Indian point of view. He hasn’t played ODI cricket since 2015, and last featured in a T20I series twelve months ago against England. He scored 104 runs in three matches, inclusive of a half-century, but didn’t bowl enough overs. It did fuel aspirations of a possible return to the ODI set-up with the Champions Trophy in sight, but the selectors ignored him despite scoring 442 runs in the 2017 IPL for Gujarat Lions.
His continued absence from the T20I set-up during the 2017-18 home season raised eyebrows, but it was revealed that he had missed the now obligatory yo-yo fitness test and hence missed out on selection. He cleared that test in December and finished sixth in the runs' chart (314 runs in 9 matches inclusive of one hundred and two half-centuries) for Uttar Pradesh during the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
It is easy to assume that Raina will walk back into the playing XI and his performances will be keenly noted, given that India will also play a T20I tri-series in Sri Lanka later in March. It could be a pathway for Raina to get back into reckoning for the 2019 World Cup as the Indian team management continues to look for all-round options that can fit into the middle order, especially the role of a No 4 batsman.
Unadkat is the other player to watch here. Since New Zealand’s trip in October, India have featured a left-arm pacer in their T20 eleven in four out of six matches. After Ashish Nehra retired, Unadkat was called up when Kumar was rested against Sri Lanka.
With the tag of highest paid Indian player (at Rs 11.5 crore) at this year's IPL auction and 24 wickets in the last edition of the cash-rich league, Unadkat could be India's trump card in this format. He has enjoyed a resurrection of sorts since then, and it will be interesting to see what is India’s first-choice pace attack with all three – Unadkat, Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah – available for selection. Shardul Thakur, who picked a career-best 4/52 in the sixth ODI, cannot be ignored either.
Hardik Pandya and the two wrist-spinners are a virtual certainty in the playing XI. Regarding the batting line-up, the only question mark is over Rahul’s inclusion. Rohit Sharma cannot be left out, and Shikhar Dhawan has enjoyed a good run in the ODI series.