Testing times for India's bowlers
Going into the Asia Cup, India's biggest worry is the bowling. The country's fast bowling stocks have rarely been healthier than a couple of years ago when a new generation of quicks fuelled the hopes of Indian fans. Cut to the present, the form and confidence of that bunch has waned and the attack is being led by 30-somethings Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra, both of whom were an integral part of the bowling as far back as the 2003 World Cup.
The first-choice trio of Zaheer, Nehra and Praveen Kumar are back for the Asia Cup, but the search for quality back-up for them has proved fruitless so far. Ishant, Sreesanth and RP Singh have struggled for consistency, while each of the half-dozen seamers who have been tried over the past six months have proved to be works in progress, with only Ashok Dinda making it to Sri Lanka.
MS Dhoni has backed the talent scouting. "We have plenty of options, but we don't have too many experienced fast bowlers," he said, "and its better if the youngsters are given a chance because all of a sudden, if your experienced bowlers like Zaheer Khan or Ashish Nehra get injured you should have someone as a back-up for a high-pressure tournament like the World Cup."
The spin bowling is likely to prove crucial in Dambulla, and it is headed by India's most successful bowler in Sri Lanka, Harbhajan Singh, whose last performance in the country was a match-turning five-wicket haul in the final of the Compaq Cup in 2009. However, as with the fast bowling, the hunt continues for reliable support performers.
Ravindra Jadeja currently seems to be on the inside track for the second spinner's spot. He may have had a year to forget as far as Twenty20s are concerned - being banned from the IPL and following it up with a horror World Twenty20 in the Caribbean - but he has proved to be a canny bowler in one-dayers, as his career economy-rate of 4.90 testifies.
It is Jadeja's unfussy batting that gives him an edge over the other contenders for the fifth bowler's slot. It may lack the overdrive needed in the high-scoring one-dayers that are the norm in the subcontinent, but can prove effective in Dambulla where scoring is usually less frenetic.
The two other spinners in the squad had reasonable tours of Zimbabwe - left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha who returned after more than a year out of the one-day side and offspinner R Ashwin, getting his first international games - but will probably spend time on the bench before getting another chance.
India have an ordinary record in multi-team tournaments over the past decade, having won three titles and shared two in 27 one-day competitions. To improve on that they'll need the returning big guns of their batting - Dhoni, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir - to fire.
"It's good the seniors got a break," coach Gary Kirsten said after the team's practice session on Tuesday evening. "I'm happy with the way the Twenty20 games went in Zimbabwe, and I'm looking forward to the tournament. This is a new beginning before the World Cup."
More than the seniors, the focus is likely to be on the three batsmen who jetted into Sri Lanka on Tuesday after completing the Twenty20s in Zimbabwe. Suresh Raina captained the youngsters there, while Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli were the best Indian batsmen in the one-dayers. All three could well be fighting for one spot when Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh return to the side, which makes the Asia Cup vital to their chances of staying in the XI as the World Cup approaches.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo