India still the team to beat

India still the team to beat

Rohit's young boys take on hosts Lanka in the opener today

India still the team to beat

On a typically hot and humid Colombo afternoon, Rohit Sharma enjoyed the refreshing comfort of the air-conditioning in the dressing-room as he led the team talk, but the relief for India's Twenty20 International squad was short-lived. Once the team walked out to the middle at the R Premadasa Stadium for warm-up, fielding drills, fitness work and finally net practice, they had spent more hard time at work than they would in an actual Twenty20 match.

This Indian team has a penchant for the unusual - it was not long ago that the entire team opted out of a training session on the eve of a Test match - and the intensity and length of their preparation ahead of a Twenty20 tournament was yet another reminder that they dare to be different.

While Sri Lanka, the hosts, were in the nets first thing in the morning, and Bangladesh, the third corner of this triangle, were at the P Saravanamuttu Stadium for their pre-event training session, it was India who hogged the limelight. The small gathering of die-hard fans in the stands greeted each player's arrival from the dressing room with cheers, the tricolour unfurled and conch blowing even before the first ball of the Nidahas Trophy was bowled.

It was back in 1998 that the first edition of the Nidahas Trophy was played, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka's independence, well before the advent of Twenty20 cricket. This event, a rare tri-nation Twenty20 International competition which kicks off on Tuesday with a clash between India and Sri Lanka, marks 70 years of  Island nation's  independence.

Testing options

For India, the tournament is a chance to test out options in different positions, the top order being far from settled in white-ball cricket. Suresh Raina has returned to the mix, but has not yet cemented his place in the team. Rishab Pant, the wicketkeeper, had chances in international cricket, but the absence of Mahendra Singh Dhoni gives him the chance to make the most of a strong run in domestic cricket. In the Zonal Twenty20 completion and the Vijay Hazare Trophy, Pant smashed his way to four fifties and a hundred.  

For the likes of Washington Sundar, Deepak Hooda and Mohammad Siraj, there are few guarantees of how many opportunities will present themselves, but they will want to show that performances in the Indian Premier League can be replicated at the international level.

Sri Lanka have had their share of injury problems, Asela Gunaratne, Shehan Madhushanka and Angelo Matthews all ruled out ahead of the tournament and Bangladesh are without Shakib-al-Hasan, their talismanic allrounder.

While it would be foolhardy to predict too much in a format that is built for unpredictability, it was clear that India were the strongest team in the race, at least on paper. The fact that the rankings also reflect this reality compelled Chandika Hathurasinghe, the Sri Lankan coach, to concede that India were the favourites. It's a tag that Rohit and his team will not mind in the least.

After all, India have enjoyed their share of success, especially in limited-overs cricket, in Sri Lanka over the years. The Premadasa Stadium is a spectacle when the lights come on, and is almost always packed to the rafters in limited-overs cricket. This may not be the biggest tournament in the world, but you can be sure there will be no shortage of intensity or atmosphere when the action gets under way.

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