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India vs Sri Lanka Test Series Preview: Under-scrutiny Kohli And India Take on Struggling Hosts

Dileep Premachandran |Cricketnext | Updated: July 25, 2017, 3:13 PM IST
India vs Sri Lanka Test Series Preview: Under-scrutiny Kohli And India Take on Struggling Hosts

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Galle: On the surface, this is a series between two sides that have journeyed in very different directions since they last met in a Test match at this most picturesque of Asian venues. India have stormed to the top of the Test rankings, winning 17 and losing only one of their 23 Tests since that calamitous fourth-innings collapse. Sri Lanka have improved their performances at home – with a 3-0 thrashing of Australia especially noteworthy – but have slid down the rankings in the limited-overs formats. Victory against India at the recent Champions Trophy was a rare bright spot in a predominantly gloomy picture.

A cursory look at how their fortunes have changed since 2010 tells you just what a Colossus Muttiah Muralitharan was. Until he retired after the Galle Test of 2010, Sri Lanka’s win-loss record at home in the new millennium was an incredible 31-8. In 35 Tests since he exited the stage in such dramatic fashion – the 800th Test wicket paved the way for a Twenty20 style run chase on the final afternoon – the numbers are much more modest, with 15 wins and 10 losses.

They may have won seven of the last eight at home, but any talk of a resurgence needs to be tempered by the fact that that sequence included a first home defeat against Bangladesh and near-embarrassment against spirited Zimbabwe. With Angelo Mathews having quit the captaincy, and Dinesh Chandimal – the hero of the 2015 win against India, with a (chancy) innings for the ages – ruled out with pneumonia, the feeling is of a side in some disarray. Rangana Herath, captaining the side at the ground where he resurrected his international career eight years ago, spoke of ‘fresh starts’ and the past not counting for much, but there’s little doubt that it’s the visitors who head into this series as big favourites.

That’s a new situation for India to be in. After the series win in 1993, Murali’s career took off, and subsequent visits to the island were laced with much frustration. The Sri Lankans are magnificent hosts, always ready with smiles, but for more than a decade, they stuck the knife in softly. In addition to Murali, they had a phalanx of attacking batsmen, mystery spinners like Ajantha Mendis and quick bowlers – Dilhara Fernando at Galle in 2001 being the prime example – who summoned up their best when faced with the India badge.

India have mixed memories of this venue. In 2001, a side missing Sachin Tendulkar was hopelessly outclassed. Seven years later, Virender Sehwag played one of his greatest innings – 201 out of 329 – and Harbhajan Singh took a 10-for that put Mendis’s own haul in the shade. The carrom-ball prodigy, whose subsequent career never lived up to the glory of those few weeks when he took 26 in a series, befuddled a feted batting line-up, with two notable exceptions. Gautam Gambhir made two feisty half-centuries and Sehwag trusted his remarkable eye to play Mendis off the pitch, and hit him pretty much where he pleased.

Two years later, with Murali in a race to 800 before the curtain fell, Sehwag scored another dazzling hundred, but this time Murali and Lasith Malinga would have the final say. As much as Murali’s retirement, it’s the loss of Malinga that has stymied Sri Lanka in recent years. After that series in 2010, he hasn’t played Test cricket, insisting that his dicky knees couldn’t handle the workload.

For India, the 2015 defeat, in a match they had dominated for two-and-a-half innings, was the spur for the stunning run of results that followed. Normally, this series wouldn’t have attracted much attention, but with so much ugliness having surrounded the coach-selection process, Virat Kohli and his team come into this game under intense scrutiny.

The widely held perception is that the captain used his influence to get the man he wanted. There should be nothing controversial about that, but the clumsy way in which the board went about the whole process – humiliating India’s greatest match-winner in the process – has left sour tastes in thousands of mouths. If Kohli and team slip up here, with Ravi Shastri looking on, it won’t be knives that come out. Expect the machetes they use to crack open king coconuts in this part of the world.

In the build-up to the game, Kohli spoke passionately about respecting the game, of how ‘it will find you and expose you’ if you didn’t. There will be no complacency on India’s part. Sri Lanka’s cricketing stock may be low in comparison to the halcyon years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but young men like Kusal Mendis, Niroshan Dickwella and Lahiru Kumara will play with the fearlessness of the callow.

India are on the road for much of the next two seasons. Back in 2015, the Sri Lanka series represented the start of a new captaincy era. That’s gone swimmingly so far, despite the virulent hatred that Kohli seems to attract from a small section of Indian fans. This contest is the first stop on a new world tour. After the home dominance of the past season, India now have to show that they are what their captain and coach insist they’ve become – a team for all conditions, and all seasons.

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First Published: July 25, 2017, 3:12 PM IST

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