It's almost nine years to the day that Virat Kohli, a sprightly teenager fresh out of a successful Under-19 World Cup campaign, made his ODI debut for India in Dambulla. Now, he returns to the same venue as India captain, looking to build on a series of impressive results in recent times, but with an eye on the 2019 World Cup, which is little under two years away.
The five-match series that starts on Sunday is crucial for Sri Lanka, who need two wins to ensure direct qualification for the 2019 World Cup. For Kohli, though, the priorities are to have a group that can embrace different challenges and push themselves to the limit in their quest to find the best possible set of players for that World Cup.
"For us, it's about the time frame and not the opposition," he said on the eve of the first ODI. "Now is the time, you have to give players time in certain roles to get into the groove and understand what we need to do in reaching that World Cup. It's about when you want to start giving roles to players and start experimenting as a team. We get carried away sometimes with Team India's expectations, and you have to win every game, that we don't fall away from pattern.
"As a group, criticism will come along the way if you try things and lose. But we should be ready to embrace challenges, take risks and [be] ready to lose a few games if we need to try out something. We're comfortable as a team with starting those things off, trying things in different ways. Things will happen. We need to start making the effort now because eight to ten months down the line, we will be solid in our roles."
Before that can happen, India will need to identify different players for different roles. Among the batsmen auditioning for middle-order berths will be KL Rahul and Manish Pandey, now that Yuvraj Singh and Dinesh Karthik have been left out. Rahul's consistency across formats before his shoulder injury means he's likely to slot in straight away, barring injury or illness. Pandey, who has been shunted up and down the order, may have to continue to adapt even if he's coming off a dream run during India A's tour of South Africa, where he made scores of 55, 41*, 86*, 93* and 32* in a successful campaign. Pandey's presence in the squad could put Kedar Jadhav, the incumbent No. 6, under a bit of pressure to maintain his recent run of ODI form with bat and ball.
"We feel KL [Rahul] obviously is such a solid player. Before injury, he'd done well in all three formats. It was unfortunate he missed out, and Manish got chances. KL will definitely play in the middle order," Kohli said. "We're not going to be predictable or have a set pattern any more in terms of what we want to do in ODIs and T20 cricket.
"Anyone could go anywhere. That's what we are looking to do. Someone like Manish, he's done well, grabbed his opportunities. He's got a hundred in Australia. We know about his talent, what he brings, super-fit guy who has a bright future ahead of him. He will certainly be backed. All three guys will have to compete for two spots, there are no guarantees for anyone. As long as there is healthy competition, everyone would keep pushing each other and it will only benefit Indian cricket."
The one thing Kohli categorically stated, though, was that Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma would be the first-choice openers, even though Ajinkya Rahane finished India's last ODI series, in the West Indies, as the highest run-getter. For now, Rahane may have to bide his time for opportunities, with Kohli confirming he would be the side's back-up opener.
"It's a pecking order you need to look at. Shikhar was not the mix of things till a few months back, but when he comes back, you've seen what he can do. It becomes tough to understand what you can do in that situation," Kohli said. "He came and got Golden Bat in the Champions Trophy, he's continued his form and won two Test matches with the bat. So he's an impact player, we all know that. Shikhar and Rohit, what they've done in the past together, we understand their potential also. Jinx understands that. At this stage, he's the third opener.
"We will back him there, because he's been shifted around a bit in the batting order which is not healthy for a guy who likes to open in the shorter format. But he's grabbed his opportunity in West Indies where he was Man of the Series. So he continues to be in the set up. When you get larger number of chances depends on players' form. He's much more relaxed after the West Indies series."