So once again Sri Lanka takes on India on the cricket field. As someone – I do not remember whether a friend or a cricket journalist – recently said India-Sri Lanka contests are becoming a bit like bet matches between two close-lying neighbourhoods in a city. The last test match the Emerald Islanders played was against the Indians, late last year and after that the two teams have taken on each other in a number of (partly futile) One-Day internationals, including the finals of the supposedly coveted Asia Cup. Now the attention turns to the longer version again with the first test of a three-series rubber beginning in Galle tomorrow (July 18, Sunday).
As I had already discussed in my previous post, the greatest significance of the match will arguably be that it will be Muttiah Muralidharan’s final test. As the veteran off-spinner stands on 792 wickets, the local crowd would be keen to see if their country’s greatest cricketer can get to 800 and add one more feather to his overcrowded cap. If Murali takes at least eight in the match at an economy rate we have come to associate with him (barring the last few test matches), then Sri Lanka may take a 1-0 lead in the series. That is exactly what Murali and the Sri Lankan team and fans will want.
For India, the challenge represents yet another opportunity to correct one of three blemishes in the country’s status as the world’s No.1 ranked test team: they have not beaten Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka. Should the Indians pull this one off, they will then be left with the task of beating the top two teams of the last decade in their own backyards – South Africa and Australia. It is however sensible not to get too far ahead of oneself and look at this particular series as yet another opportunity to win abroad.
While the Indians have the batting wherewithal, the bowling attack is surely hamstrung by the absence of India’s premiere bowler – both in sub-continental and pace-conducive conditions – over the last two years, Zaheer Khan. As Harsha Bhogle quips this may as well mean that 50% of India’s bowling attack is gone which speaks volumes about Zaheer’s role as India’s bowling vanguard in recent years but also suggests something of the extreme reliance placed on him by skippers. However, indispensability in thought is a crime in life and particularly in team sport and Zak’s absence represents a chance for his replacement(s) to step up to the plate. Even if Indians pick the best squad from the resources they have, picking up 20 wickets in Sri Lanka is going to be a huge challenge especially if Harbhajan Singh and his spin partner do not contribute significantly.
The batting line-up that continues to be one of the most-vaunted batting line-ups in World Cricket too did not give a good account of itself in the preparatory match against the Board President’s XI where the Indians were out-batted and out-bowled. Apart from Gambhir’s solid hit at the top of the order, which proved once again that he is India’s emerging Mr. Consistent in all formats of the game, Yuvraj Singh’s breezy hundred was a positive. Nonetheless, Yuvraj’s inclusion over Pujara who has been in sublime form as evidenced by his exploits for India A in England recently smacks of the same kind of ineptitude that BCCI’s selections generally involve. While it may not be a great idea to read too much into a solitary tour game, the fact that they gave six wickets to Mendis – who menaced them the last time they were there –in the first innings may be a little unsettling for the visitors.
I do not like to pick verdicts especially before even the first ball has been sent down in a series. But it is clear that it is going to be a battle of two bowling attacks in attritional conditions, one under-par and the other with a lot of potential but which has not seen much of test cricket lately. The bowling attack that performs better is likely to win the series as both batting line-ups are studded with fine players, tons of experience and plenty of runs. My hunch though is Sri Lanka may just take the series 1-0 or (if all the pitches are result-oriented) perhaps 2-0 or 2-1. As usual since the Indians are at the other end, I hope I am wrong. We will know in four weeks’ time.