When India announced their squad for the three-match T20I series against Sri Lanka, their seam bowling looked thin on experience. Arshdeep Singh, who made his international debut less than six months ago, was the leader of the pack, which had Umran Malik and two uncapped bowlers in Shivam Mavi and Mukesh Kumar.
Then, on the day of the first T20I, Arshdeep was unavailable as he failed to recover fully from a viral illness. But Mavi and Malik stepped up to help India defend 162. Mavi didn't shy away from mixing his seam-up deliveries with slower ones. He struck twice in the powerplay, and finished with figures of 4 for 22. According to ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats, he was easily the MVP of the match.
Given his high pace and lack of accuracy, Malik can be expensive at times. But in the first T20I, he bowled hard lengths to pick up 2 for 27 from his four overs. One of those overs was at the death, where he tilted the game towards India with Dasun Shanaka's wicket.
The duo's performances meant the hosts took a 1-0 lead despite lapses in batting and fielding. At one stage, it looked like they would struggle to reach even 150 after being reduced to 94 for 5 in the 15th over. While defending, Sanju Samson dropped a catch, and their ground fielding was found wanting as well.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, have lost their previous 11 completed T20Is against India in India. But they will draw confidence from the fact that in the first game, their spinners, Wanindu Hasaranga and Maheesh Theekshana, outbowled their Indian counterparts, Yuzvendra Chahal and Axar Patel. That helped them restrict India to a below-par total at the traditionally high-scoring Wankhede. And despite their top order failing, Shanaka and Chamika Karunaratne got them to within one shot of victory.
Coincidentally, their last win against India in India, in 2016, also came at the MCA stadium in Pune, the venue for Thursday's game. Sri Lanka will hope for a similar result to keep the series alive.
India WTWLW (last five completed T20Is, most recent first)Sri Lanka LLWLL
Harshal Patel broke into the Indian side on the back of his excellent death bowling during the 2021 IPL. But in the recent past, batters seem to have figured him out. Arshdeep's rise meant he didn't get a single game at the 2022 T20 World Cup, even with Jasprit Bumrah, India's first-choice death bowler, out of the side with a back injury. He needs to put in a good show in the remaining two games of the series, for once Bumrah is back, it will be even tougher to find a place in the XI.
Bhanuka Rajapaksa was Sri Lanka's leading run-getter during their Asia Cup 2022 campaign, scoring 191 runs at a strike rate of 149.21. But since then, his returns have plummeted. At the T20 World Cup, he managed only 125 runs in seven innings at a strike rate of 119.04. He fared even worse in the recently concluded Lanka Premier League: 95 runs in seven innings at 105.55. Sri Lanka will need him back among runs if they are to give themselves the best chance of winning the series.
If Arshdeep is available, Malik may have to sit out. Barring that, India may not make any other changes, especially with Hardik, on more than one occasion, talking about backing his players.
India (probable): 1 Ishan Kishan (wk), 2 Shubman Gill, 3 Suryakumar Yadav, 4 Sanju Samson, 5 Hardik Pandya (capt), 6 Deepak Hooda, 7 Axar Patel, 8 Harshal Patel, 9 Shivam Mavi, 10 Arshdeep Singh/Umran Malik, 11 Yuzvendra Chahal
Sri Lanka may consider bringing in Lahiru Kumara for Kasun Rajitha, who went for 47 in his four wicketless overs in the first T20I.
Sri Lanka (probable): 1 Pathum Nissanka, 2 Kusal Mendis (wk), 3 Dhananjaya de Silva, 4 Charith Asalanka, 5 Bhanuka Rajapaksa, 6 Dasun Shanaka (capt), 7 Wanindu Hasaranga, 8 Chamika Karunaratne, 9 Maheesh Theekshana, 10 Kasun Rajitha/Lahiru Kumara, 11 Dilshan Madushanka
Unlike many other venues, teams batting first at the MCA stadium, across all T20s, have won more games than chasing teams: 34 vs 29. On a black-soil surface here, spinners have done slightly better than fast bowlers, their economy being 7.37 as compared to 7.97 for seamers. Once again, there is not much dew expected, with the temperature at night hovering around 18°C.