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T20I series: Spotlight on returning Bumrah, Sri Lankan young 'uns

The Tests against South Africa will be Jasprit Bumrah's first at home Getty Images

Sri Lanka are in India, and a three-T20I series between the two of them will kick off their engagements for the new year, as well as their build-up to the T20 World Cup later in the year. It starts in Guwahati, and then travels to Indore and Pune. Here's a checklist of things to watch out for.

Sri Lanka specialist Rohit rests, Bumrah returns

India v Sri Lanka. Over to you, Rohit Sharma, the stand-in captain. For a change, Sharma has been rested from the upcoming three-match T20I series at home against Sri Lanka, and the focus will instead be on the comeback men and the fringe players, who will be looking to use this series as a springboard for the T20 World Cup later this year in Australia.

Since Jasprit Bumrah claimed a blink-and-you-miss-it 6 for 27, including a hat-trick, at Sabina Park in September last year, he hasn't played any representative cricket. Having recovered from a back injury, India's spearhead has only bowled in the nets since, but his return spruces up an attack that has been struck by injuries.

Longer rope for Saini and Thakur?

No timeframe has been set for the returns of Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Deepak Chahar, which might mean more game-time for Navdeep Saini and Shardul Thakur, who were part of the injury list not too long ago.

In the ODI series decider against West Indies in Cuttack, Saini had shown that his extra pace and zip could give India's attack an edge even on flat tracks, while Thakur snapped a blazing stand between Kieron Pollard and Nicholas Pooran, and followed it with a cameo with the bat to see off a tense chase.

The second opener conundrum

On the batting front, there could be a direct shootout between a fit-again Shikhar Dhawan and the in-form KL Rahul for the second opener's role behind white-ball vice-captain Sharma.

In the absence of Dhawan, Rahul enjoyed a longer run at the top and reeled off scores of 62, 11, 91, 6, 102 and 77 in the limited-overs series against West Indies.

ALSO READ: Rahul 2.0 makes strong case for regular limited-overs selection

In 2019, Rahul had scored runs in almost every form of white-ball cricket he had played. Runs in the middle order at the World Cup: check. Runs at the top at the World Cup: check. Runs against West Indies: check. Runs at the top in the IPL: check. Runs in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy: check. Runs in the 20-over Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy: check. But despite ticking all boxes, Rahul might not be guaranteed an opening slot alongside Sharma in the T20 World Cup down under.

And hello again, Shikhar Dhawan. He's returning to the white-ball fold after a second major injury in 2019, and his experience and calmness are too hard to ignore. He was the top scorer in T20Is in 2018, with 689 runs in 17 innings at an average of 40.52 and strike rate of 147.22. Sharma had occupied second place on that list with 590 runs in 18 innings at an average of 36.87 and strike rate of 147.50.

Dhawan was also at it in IPL 2019, emerging as Delhi Capitals' highest run-getter, with 521 runs in 16 innings. The strike rate had dropped to 135.67 in the IPL as he had come up against very sluggish tracks at the Feroz Shah Kotla.

Sri Lanka look to the future

As for Sri Lanka, which version of their side will turn up in India? Soon after their second-string team had whitewashed Pakistan 3-0 in Pakistan, their first-string team were swept 3-0 in Australia, which will be the scene of the World Cup. The margins of defeats were alarming - 134 runs, nine wickets and seven wickets - but Sri Lanka have kept faith in their youngsters.

When Bhanuka Rajapaksa was racking up the runs at school level, he was earmarked to be a future Sri Lanka star. After some (unexpected) success in Pakistan, the 28-year-old seems to be belatedly living up to the hype, having earned a T20 gig in the Bangladesh Premier League and a T10 gig in the UAE.

Avishka Fernando had everyone going ga-ga over his rousing strokeplay in the 50-over World Cup last year, but his T20I strike rate of 94.87 after ten matches needs some buffing up. Sri Lanka captain Lasith Malinga has confirmed that Avishka would be opening the batting alongside Danushka Gunathilaka.

Sri Lanka look to the past

Sri Lanka have also recalled an old pro in Angelo Mathews, who last featured in the shortest format in August 2018.

Despite not having bowled a ball in eight months leading up to the 50-over World Cup, Mathews floated a 115kph delivery and dismissed Nicholas Pooran to add to a list of a crazy Sri Lankan victories in 2019. Does the 32-year-old still have it in him in T20 cricket?

Sri Lankan young 'uns v gung-ho India

Then, there are exciting allrounders in Wanindu Hasaranga and Isuru Udana. Hasaranga, the legspinner who can bowl a mean wrong'un, had bagged a hat-trick on ODI debut in 2017 and more recently took back-to-back three-fors in the T20I series in Lahore.

Left-arm seamer Udana, who has a surfeit of slower balls in his repertoire, has come a long way since being fast-tracked into Sri Lanka's T20 World Cup squad in 2009. He has evolved into a genuine wicket-taker and a powerful lower-order hitter, also attracting the attention of various T20 leagues around the world, including the IPL.

India, too, have come a long way since their batting line-up was pinned down by Sri Lanka's defensive bowling in the 2014 T20 World Cup final in Dhaka. They have now learned to adapt to the changing T20 landscape, and even did a West Indies on West Indies while batting first in the T20I series decider in Mumbai last month.

Sri Lanka have lost their last five T20Is in India, but if their newbies stand up to pressure - like they did in Pakistan - they can spring a surprise on India.