The commencement of the ICC Champions Trophy 2017 for both India and Sri Lanka was quite contrasting. While, the men in blue, after being pushed against the wall by Pakistan for 90 percent of the first innings, stormed back into the game to absolutely hammer their arch-rivals. The Island nation failed to capitalise on the start provided by their openers against South Africa and were handed a crushing 96-run loss. Talking solely about momentum and confidence, India have an edge over them. But these are factors which would be of least importance for Sri Lanka when they take on their neighbours at the Oval on Thursday as the possibility of an early exit looms over their heads.
Sri Lanka's transition phase, after the retirements of stalwarts like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, has been painstakingly long. They faced a plethora of losses as the Champions Trophy came closer. Australia defeated them 4-1 at home. Though they won a Tri Series in Zimbabwe, a reality check instantly followed in the form of a whitewash against South Africa in South Africa. However, the final nail on the coffin was their next ODI assignment in home conditions against Bangladesh which ended 1-1.
One of the major reasons for this letdown was the popping up of new names every series. The lack of backing and inconsistency in selecting squads has put Sri Lankan cricket team in the mess they currently find themselves in. Their captain Angelo Mathews thought it was difficult to answer as to why the side was taking so much time to improve.
"If you look at most of the guys, they haven’t played a lot of international cricket. The more you play, the more you learn, and we’ve learned right throughout our careers. Yes, it’s a very tough question. You never know. But it’s just that we’ve got to keep learning every single day, and everyone has to step up with their roles because we can’t just expect things to fall in line," Mathews said at the presser ahead of the do-or-die clash against India.
The Mathews-led side entered the Champions Trophy 2017 as underdogs, something which the Sri Lankan captain himself agreed to. But they certainly didn't play like one in their first match of the tourney, well at least for the three forth part of it. The Sri Lankan bowlers restricted a batting-heavy South Africa to 299 and began their chase in a grand fashion. The nervousness showed on the South African dressing room - a few people even began to use the 'C' word - when their opponents raced away to 87 runs in 10 overs. But all the tension was put to bed by an apathetic performance from Sri Lanka's middle order.
The despondency that might have surrounded the Islanders after the match must have intensified a couple of hours later when opener and stand-in captain Upul Tharanga was suspended for two matches for a 'pathetic' - as described by Mathews - over rate. However, Mathews' return for the clash against India will come as a ray of hope for this weakened side that are in a desperate need of some motivation.
The Sri Lankan captain does bring in an experience of 180 matches with him, but the fact that he wouldn't be able to put in those few yards and bowl the crucial overs which he usually does will worry his side. To address that issue, the Island nation may name Thisara Perera in the eleven. Thisara's striking prowess will also provide batting depth to Sri Lanka. Seekkuge Prasanna endured a poor outing in the previous game and would be the most likely to face the axe.
Chamara Kapugedara injured his knee during training on the eve of the match and was ruled out of the tournament. His replacement Danushka Gunathilaka is expected to open with Niroshan Dickwella in place of Tharanga. Danushka's off breaks will also somewhat solve the team's fifth bowler troubles.
Lasith Malinga will be key to Sri Lanka's chances. The veteran pacer has lost a bit of his pace making his slower yorkers less effective. But his clever change up in lengths and variations still makes him dangerous as was the case against South Africa. The slingy pacer might have a mediocre record against Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni, but given the wealth of skills and calm head he possesses, Sri Lanka can can bank on him to come good in the all important clash.
India, on the other side, would not want to tinker with their winning combination after the kind of display they put up against Pakistan. Lately, in Tests as well in the other formats, Kohli and Co have adopted a horses for courses approach and considering the amount of grass that is on the pitch at the Oval, Ravichandran Ashwin might sit out of the playing eleven for successive games.
Six balls is too less to make a impact but Hardik Pandya's three monster sixes off Imad Wasim's were the icing on the cake for India as they finished their innings at 319/3, a total which looked improbable a few overs before. Hardik's belief stood out as he returned in the second innings to bowl a disciplined spell of 8 overs and snare two wickets. India skipper Kohli while appreciating his contributions stated that he could be an important player for the Indian team in the coming years.
"He (Hardik) is a real asset for Indian cricket, I would say. It's very hard to find a guy who can almost touch 140 kph and who strikes the way he strikes the ball. And he can bat through the innings as well. We saw that in the practice game (80 no off 54 balls vs Bangladesh). So if you give him 16, say 17 overs to bat, he can do that job for you as well," Kohli remarked at the press conference.
Dhoni didn't get to bat in India's opener of Champions Trophy. However, his impressive record against Sri Lanka makes a case for him batting at No 4. The former Indian captain averages 61.35, almost 11 runs more than his career average against the Lankans. Kohli too fancies this opposition as he has amassed 1856 runs at 56.24 in the 40 outings against them. If these two combine, it will boost India's chances to book that semifinal berth on Thursday itself
Even though the Indian bowling wasn't tested much against Pakistan, their performances in the warm-up matches will stand them in good stead. Lankan skipper Mathews also praised the Indian bowling line-up and is aware of the threat that they will come against.
"This bowling lineup is quite different. They’re one of the best in the world. You get a good balance of spin and pace, and they’re all different to each other, and they’ve got a fantastic bowling attack," remarked Mathews, Sri Lanka's best batsman.
The one area in which India must step up is their fielding. The Indian fielders conceded a lot of extra runs through misfields and dropped a couple of catches which, dare I say, slightly hinted at complacency. It didn't cost them in their opening match, but they cannot afford another poor outing in the field against a hungry Sri Lankan unit.
India start as firm favourites on Thursday despite Mathews' return. However, Mathews and Co could take inspiration from Pakistan's strong comeback against South Africa and cause an upset. If they do, the India-South Africa and Sri Lanka-Pakistan fixtures on Sunday and Monday respectively would become virtual quarterfinals. A scenario which would extend an exciting finish to the Champions Trophy, which so far has been dud thanks to the English weather.
India: Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah
Sri Lanka: Niroshan Dickwella, Danushka Gunathilaka, Kusal Mendis, Dinesh Chandimal, Angelo Mathews, Asela Gunaratne, Thisara Perera, Kusal Perera, Lasith Malinga, Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep.