Depleted after losing K.L Rahul and Kuldeep Yadav to injuries even before a ball was bowled, an injury-hit India return to international action after two intense months of IPL 2022, as preparations for Men's T20 World Cup resume with the opening game of the five-match series against South Africa at the Arun Jaitley Stadium on Thursday.
The next ten days of T20I action against a full-strength Proteas side is a chance for India to test a new-look top-order sans Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and with KL Rahul unavailable now due to a right groin injury, meaning that Rishabh Pant is all set to make his international captaincy debut at his home ground.
The series is also the first in the post-Covid-19 pandemic era in India, where bio-bubble restrictions aren't in place and full attendance is allowed in stadiums.
For the first time since India's loss in their T20I series opener to Bangladesh in 2019, the hosts will be playing an international game in New Delhi, where they have a chance to create a new record in men's cricket -- of winning most matches on the trot in the format. India currently stand with Afghanistan and Romania in winning 12 consecutive men's T20Is. A win on Thursday will take them to 13 wins, the most by any team in men's T20I cricket.
The absence of Sharma, Kohli, Rahul, Kuldeep Yadav (right-hand injury), Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami as well as Suryakumar Yadav, Deepak Chahar and Ravindra Jadeja brings India's 16-man squad into focus as well as the returning duo of Dinesh Karthik and Hardik Pandya.
Karthik hadn't played for India in T20Is since February 2019. But scintillating performances as a specialist finisher for Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in IPL 2022, amassing 242 runs at a strike rate of 220 in the death overs phase, paved the path for a comeback into the national team after three years.
Head coach Rahul Dravid hinted on Tuesday that Karthik will continue to play the specialist finisher role he did at RCB for the Indian team. On the other hand, Pandya, now the deputy to Pant, will be seen in the Indian jersey after last featuring in the 2021 Men's T20 World Cup. At that time, with concerns over him bowling his full quota of overs, Pandya played mainly as a batter while bowling a few overs in the Super 10 stage.
But, in IPL 2022, Pandya turned a corner, amassing 487 runs in 15 matches at an average of 44.27, with four half-centuries apart from picking eight wickets and leading Gujarat Titans to IPL 2022 trophy. Now, back in the Indian scheme of things, the all-rounder arrives in the T20I series against South Africa oozing with confidence.
But Dravid dropped hints that Pandya might play a different role for India after gaining success as an all-rounder, especially as a number four batter, for the Titans' in IPL 2022. Young pacers Umran Malik and Arshdeep Singh bring an element of excitement to the 16-man squad.
But it seems that India will stick with the pace trio of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Harshal Patel and Avesh Khan for the opening match. With no Rahul, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Ishan Kishan are sure to open the batting. In absence of Kuldeep, a toss-up between Axar Patel and Ravi Bishnoi might happen with Yuzvendra Chahal a sure starter.
South Africa, meanwhile, are playing together as a unit for the first time since they missed out on a semifinal spot in the T20 World Cup last year despite winning four matches in the Super 10 stage. A majority of members in their squad are well-versed with Indian conditions, with ten players being members of various franchises in IPL 2022 and not having lost a bilateral T20I series in India.
David Miller had his best IPL season with 481 runs at an average of 68.71 and a strike rate of 142.72 for Gujarat. The number five spot, improved play against spin and role clarity meant Miller remained unbeaten in nine matches for the Titans'. Captain Temba Bavuma will be expecting him to don the same role for the Proteas, while Aiden Markram and Rassie van der Dussen complete the middle-order.
The interesting thing to look out for for South Africa will be on who pairs up with Quinton de Kock at the top, though Bavuma suggested that he could open the batting with the left-handed wicketkeeper.
The visitors look sorted on the bowling front with Kagiso Rabada to lead the pace attack after picking 23 wickets for Punjab Kings in IPL 2022 while Anrich Nortje, Lungi Ngidi and Dwaine Pretorius are other fast bowling options in the side. Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaj should lead the spin challenge for the Proteas.