Going by the past exploits of South Africa, Sri Lanka's proud record at home, and India's recent good run, the tri-series between India, South Africa and Sri Lanka promises to be a cracker.
While the form of key batsmen and bowlers will be critical for India to do well, the most important ingredients, if India are to deliver another top performance, are its pinch-hitters -- lower middle order batsmen or tail.
A flash back to the September-October series between India and Sri Lanka will help us understand how critical the performance of pinch-hitters has been in India's ODI revival.
Performance of Pinch-hitters (In the Last India-Sri Lanka ODI battle)
If India, against all odds, had managed to thrash the islanders 6-1, the good showing was basically due to the performance of its pinch hitters.
While India's lower middle order batsmen, or tail, used in these positions 6 times, accumulated 390 runs at an average of 78, Sri Lanka experimented just once and paid heavy penalty.
The position-play, besides helping India to a formidable show, also turned out to be a stepping-stone to the iconic batting status for MS Dhoni (thrice used as pinch hitter) and Irfan Pathan (used twice).
In fact, of the 346 runs Dhoni had aggregated in the series, the highest by any batsman from either side, as many as 263 had come at number three or four. For batsmen with more than five matches, only Dravid averaged more.
How Dhoni came into limelight:
Top-5 Indian batsmen in the ODI series against Sri Lanka
In fact, the only time Dhoni failed as a pinch hitter in the series, out for a duck at Ahmedabad, India went on to lose and Sri Lanka avoided a possible whitewash.
That Dhoni was never utilized as a pinch hitter in the subsequent series against South Africa may explain the 2-2 draw soon after. In that series, Pathan once again proved lucky at number three in the second match at Bangalore. His timely 37, after the early loss of Tendulkar, helped India to a 6-wicket win in a low-scoring encounter.
In fact, Pathan is turning out to be another super-utility tail-ender. The southpaw not only boasts of a good showing at number eight position, but also averages a very healthy 34 at the number three position.
Pathan as a batsman (Pacer as well as finisher)
|Number three||Number eight|
While Pathan has proved to be a gritty customer as the innings draws to a close, he tends to run out of overs as number eight batsman as seen in the high percentage of 65 per cent unfinished innings.
On the other hand, Pathan's presence at the top tends to take the initiative away from the opponents. India have won seven out of ten matches where Irfan has come as number three batsman.
Coming back to Dhoni, his top two performances have come at either number three or number four.
Despite his average of above 50 at number six position, in the likely high scoring matches in Sri Lanka, India will be better served with Dhoni as number three or four in critical encounters. It will help him play many more overs.
Dhoni's 50 plus positions
So India will do well to experiment with pinch-hitters in the coming series. As the subcontinent pitches usually favour high-scoring encounters, what better way than to bamboozle the opponents with the likes of Dhoni and Pathan in the first 15 - 20 overs.
That is something, which can really swing the momentum the India's way.