Ahead of the series against India, Sri Lanka’s earnest and articulate coach, Nic Pothas, exhorted his team not to get infatuated with India’s strengths. He was asking his team to focus on what they can do, which is right, but in doing so, he might have revealed his team’s state of mind ahead of the series. The last time these two teams played, not so long ago as we know, Sri Lanka didn’t find itself competing and that can be a terrible feeling to recall.
And yet, India must guard against taking opponents lightly. The history of sport is full of unexpected results emerging primarily from disrespecting the opposition. The Sri Lankans have just beaten Pakistan 2-0, a fine result anywhere, and while playing India in India is a different proposition, it is worth keeping in mind.
The stats favour India, especially the fact that Sri Lanka have never won a Test match in spite of having stronger teams visit here in the past. That is both daunting and scary. But just as worrisome for Sri Lanka is that their biggest match winner, in all fairness their only genuine match winner, Rangana Herath averages 45 against India. Take away a rank turner and it would seem that that threat is largely negated. As India discovered in the series against Australia, when you play on good pitches the better side tends to win and India should expect to win this series if they play on good pitches.
India have fewer issues to address and that should be expected. The choice of openers is one and I believe India should go in with Lokesh Rahul and Murali Vijay with Rahul as the clearly designated first choice opener. He is an outstanding talent, has time on his side and plays fast bowling well. He has been through some indifferent form lately but that was in limited-overs cricket where he was batting out of position. On overseas tours, Vijay has often given the impression of being India’s most reliable batsman and while his recent numbers do him no justice, and injuries have been an irritant, you have to give him the opportunity to reclaim that role.
A few months ago, Shikhar Dhawan yanked a series India’s way against this opposition. Sri Lanka would be happy not to bowl to him but given that he was a replacement for Vijay, and India has established a precedent by leaving out Karun Nair after a triple century, I believe it is fair that India revert to their original pair with a potential match winner waiting to be unleashed.
Hardik Pandya was being eased into Test cricket well and being at a stage where every day is a point on the learning curve, it would have been good for him to notch up a few more points. But India have another all-rounder down the batting order waiting to draw attention to himself. India’s excitement with Pandya is because of the belief that a batting all-rounder has been sighted. If however, India is confident of someone else batting at number six, then Bhuvneshwar Kumar down the order offers more with his bowling and the question to ask really is whether Bhuvneshwar offers more with the bat than Pandya does with the ball.
And it will be good to see Ashwin and Jadeja back. They will be hungry and their hunger in the past has generated a bagful of wickets. Luckily they have had a bit of cricket behind them and while the numbers haven’t been outstanding, the top players tend to rise to the occasion on the big day. And with Ashwin galloping towards becoming the fastest ever to 300 wickets, there is added excitement.
But once all is said and done, you must ask what result those playing the matches expect. And it won’t surprise me if, deep down inside, both teams believe India will win the series.